Note: I use “MCU” here to refer strictly to the film franchise, not to any of the Marvel television properties.
Acknowledgments: thanks to all those who engaged in a fascinating and deep discussion of superheroes with me via Facebook. There are few analyses of the topic that center on women’s perspectives or include the voices of many women of color, and much of this essay grew out of a lengthy thread that featured both. Special shout-out to Robin, who in addition to contributing quite a bit to that conversation has also been reviewing the Marvel movies on her own blog, which served as another inspiration.
The United States, we are told — we see in headlines every day — can’t agree on much right now, and we can agree with the international community even less. Political turbulence is fracturing society, pitting brother against brother, but one cultural property has apparently managed to transcend (or at least navigate) such dramatic social rupture: I’m talking, of course, about the MCU, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the spectacular, superhero-addled, money-printing global juggernaut that has, over the last ten years and twenty movies, made billions upon billions upon billions of dollars for its parent company Disney and even bested their sibling franchise Star Wars to become the most profitable in Hollywood history.
The MCU is certainly popular. It’s often fun. But is it any good?
The shortest answer is that it can be. “Black Panther,” released earlier this year and the highest-grossing non-Avengers “one-off” film in the MCU pantheon, is an impeccable and daring version of a traditional origin story which directly engages with the United States’s colonialist history and suggests a radical, Afro-futurist redemption. That this is not your typical take on the hero’s journey is evident from one of the earliest scenes, a twist on “Hamlet” which subverts the core of the Western canon’s greatest classic: it is the good king who slays his brother here, and the dramatic arc of the movie reaches its climax when a ghostlike vision of T’Chaka confesses to his princely son that, in fact, he was wrong to do so. Take that, Claudius! Take that, centuries of Claudius knock-offs who have so thoroughly infested Western storytelling that we might say they have effectively colonized it! Another advantage of contemporary storytelling as compared to Elizabethan tales is that we are now — at least some of us, at least director Ryan Coogler — able to imagine a greater space for women, an outcome for Ophelia beyond her own collapse; indeed, it is the wisdom of T’Challa’s love interest, Nakia, which ultimately resolves the film’s central conflict (perhaps her concomitant empathy and anti-colonialism are the truest mechanisms for reviving Ophelia). It falls to the unapologetic blackness of “Black Panther” to repurpose an old saw, and the film succeeds so fully because it does so with extraordinary technical skill, political intelligence, and narrative care.
Neither is it the sole example of excellence within the MCU. 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” the third one-off film to center the Norse god, was billed as a comedic refashioning of its previously overserious main character (first introduced to us in a plodding effort at Shakespeareanism directed by none other than the most famous living Hamlet himself, Kenneth Branagh), but it is much more than that: like its successor, “Ragnarok” is a remarkably coherent decolonialist delight, less ideologically overt than “Black Panther” but no less powerful for its allegory and abstraction — that is, if one can read it. Disturbingly, nearly every North American review of the film missed nearly all of its politics, embedded as they are in the visual language of Maori and Australian aboriginal designs which — though apparently rather obvious to antipodean viewers — drew blanks from everyone except the Village Voice and a website rooted in anti-colonialism and black liberation. One normally perceptive reviewer described the production design on Jeff Goldblum’s highly stylized planet of Sakaar — an aesthetic which Maori director Taika Waititi developed meticulously, to emulate aboriginal and Pasifika motifs without culturally appropriating them, which culminates in Thor escaping from Sakaar and returning to Asgard to confront his plunderous, imperialist sister in a plane painted like the goddamn Aboriginal flag — as “80s-arcade-inspired.”
Suffice it to say, the reviews of “Ragnarok” are not exactly an endorsement of the cultural curiosity of North American audiences.
There are a couple of baffling points about this, not least that we live in a digital world where it is enormously easy to discover other points of view, to educate oneself about a symbology that, once learned, is about as blatant as Captain America’s shield. That North American reviewers failed to look beyond their own assumptions when engaging with the work of an indigenous director is a deep indictment of North American indigenous erasure, of the way we still project a kind of “terra nullis” onto the cultural spaces inhabited by indigenous artists. That reviewers would fail to reconsider their perceptions when dealing with a film whose narrative is an explicitly anti-colonialist fable in which the son of fortune discovers that his inheritance is one built not on benevolent dictatorship but plunder and violent conquest, who attempts to confront an agent of that violence, is dispossessed, finds himself without status, property, or identity, builds solidarity with similarly dispossessed people, returns to confront the agent of plunder and violent conquest once more only to now recognize that the only way forward is to burn his inheritance to the fucking ground, to destroy it altogether and become not so much a king as a cosmic refugee — that this story can be read by anyone as lighthearted or apolitical or confused betrays the egregious vacuum at the heart of popular understandings of imperialism, oppression, and white allyship, to which “Ragnarok” offers a more revolutionary instruction than even “Black Panther” can muster: when it comes to the inheritances of colonialism, the only just response of the privileged is to blow that shit up.
Sure, each movie suffers from overlong fight scenes — an occupational hazard for our cinematic superheroes — but then again, excellence doesn’t mean the same thing as perfection.
To read the responses of (most) superhero fans to any critique or questioning of their beloved genre is a study in reflexive defensiveness, a refusal to entertain the idea that the stories, characters, and cultural properties into which they have invested so much of their time, money, and sense of self might be less than worthwhile. But now that the MCU has brought in more money than god and led to two movies whose excellence extended not only to their visuals, their humor, and their narrative but also to an incredible political coherence the likes of which is rarely found in even Oscar-winning or arthouse films — now that the possibility of not just goodness but greatness has been validated and replicated — can we admit that most of the MCU is not very good?
Some of the movies are fine, perfectly serviceable ways to spend one hundred and twenty minutes, maybe even worth spending fifteen bucks to see in theaters if you’re going with friends or looking to beat the heat. 2011’s “The Avengers” brings Our Heroes together for the first time in a series of spectacles that, despite their Manhattan (or Cleveland, where the film was shot)-destroying consequences, remain legible, where the sheer implausibility of the stakes doesn’t divorce them entirely from characters and story. It might sound like damnation by faint praise, but both the DC universe and so many action and disaster movies in the past demonstrate all too readily the challenge of using mass destruction as a plot point. Director Joss Whedon is generally overrated and the relentless quippiness of his dialogue in this film is, as in all of his projects, wearying — but the mechanics are there, and things mostly hang together. (His second outing, “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” betrays the cool weirdness of its title and, in attempting to outdo the spectacle of its predecessor, ends up so incoherent that it manages to be simultaneously too-serious and too-cute, investing vastly more screen time and narrative space in an out-of-left-field, stilted, and unearned “romance” between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner than in any consequences for the building-leveling urban destruction unleashed by the Hulk/Wanda and Iron Man in Johannesburg. The desperate desire to one-up past movies, and the willingness to ignore characterization in order to do so, has proven a consistent storytelling priority for the Marvel team-up movies, and it also explains why those team-up movies continue to get worse and worse.)
Complaining about quippiness in the MCU might seem ungenerous, as it is a series essentially founded on quippiness — the first film, the one on whose success the entire franchise was built, is 2008’s “Iron Man,” and Robert Downey Jr.’s titular character is nothing if not quippy, and who doesn’t love a wisecracking playboy billionaire, anyway? Well… I don’t, at least not when the character, despite repeated feints towards growth, essentially ends there. A lot of people enjoyed “Iron Man,” overlooking the misogyny which opened the film — in the first scene Tony Stark sexually harasses a US soldier, and moments later the movie deploys one of my least favorite misogynist tropes, that of the reporter who sleeps with her subject, only to dispose of said reporter (whose pointed questions to Tony Stark about war profiteering are painted as bitchy and self-serving when coming out of her mouth, but profound when Tony Stark asks himself the same thing later, in his non-shrill non-lady voice!) in an impossibly catty dialogue between Pepper Potts, Paragon of Stand-Quietly-By-Your-Man-Until-He-Deigns-To-Notice-You Virtue, and Slutty Overbearing-Reporterface-Who-Dares-To-Do-Her-Job-And-Ask-Relevant-Questions-Of-A-Public-Figure McSlutson, whom Pepper literally refers to as “trash.” The only trash is a system in which scenes like this are written, produced, and consumed without complaint, but hey, it’s not like denigrating journalists as whorish, self-interested enemies of the public good could ever have any real-life negative consequences, right?
If I’m harping a lot on the first five minutes of a long movie, it’s only because they are abhorrent enough to deserve it. Comics fans may be capable of projecting other stories onto Pepper Potts, but in the movies she’s nothing more than a Good Girl (and, once they are in a relationship, a Good Woman), a mechanism for Tony Stark to measure his self-improvement rather than her own independent character. I admit the bias that I bring to Iron Man — my childhood experiences have left me deeply resistant to tales of The Boy Genius, And Also The Non-Genius But Still Very Smart Ladies Who Help Make Him Great — but that bias serves mostly to refocus my gaze towards the female characters who are invariably badly served by this narrative type. Before he’s ever a garbage boyfriend, Tony Stark is a garbage boss who forces his assistant to end relationships for him because he’s too busy Boy Geniusing to treat women like human beings; why would anyone be interested in watching Pepper Potts accept his abuse? What value is there in having a romantic relationship with such an asshole except to be The Special One, The One Girl In All The World Worth Treating Decently, which is itself an implicit validation of the idea that all the rest of the girls in the world are not?
If the gender politics of “Iron Man” and its sequels are actively terrible, it clears a somewhat higher bar in its critique of the military-industrial complex (the same critique that the shrill slutty lady reporter dared to make in the first moments of the first film, only to be punished by the narrative for it so that the Menfolk! could go on three movies’ worth of Important Personal Journeys to discover that she was right all along, for which she gets zero credit, because honestly who cares about that broad?) — unlike the films’ treatment of women there’s at least a glimmer of intention to engage seriously with the topic, to address the human consequences of weapons manufacturing. Of course the execution of this critique is not just muddled but mangled beyond any point of meaning or coherence, which is perhaps inevitable for a work that wanted to interrogate the post-9/11 state of permanent war without actually taking a political stance that might potentially alienate any of the young white men who comprised its target demographic; out of such an impossible paradox it’s not surprising that the movie’s conclusion is best summarized as “War is bad but also necessary but weapons of war can hurt innocent people, so instead of making those this one guy at the top of the military-industrial complex will stop making them and instead just make one superweapon, totally under his own non-democratic control, but you can trust him because he’s quippy and likable and has a Good Woman at his side.” Sure, the second and third “Iron Man” movies attempt to introduce some complexity into this formulation (shockingly, the military isn’t entirely comfortable with Tony Stark’s choices! Here’s another super-suit, which is literally called “War Machine,” but it’s OK because it’s ironic! But not really! Tony’s unhappy with what he’s doing, but, well, he’s just gonna keep on doing it! Here, have a tiresome volume of quips to distract you from the fact that none of this hangs together!) but they mostly proceed, as so many blockbusters do, on spectacle and charisma, cashing in on CGI and Robert Downey Jr.’s easy, misogyny-masking charm. Such adulation can bring its own unintended consequences, but thus far RDJ has avoided the pitfalls that have ensnared his peers or his younger self and dutifully maintained the bankability of the franchise.
Of course, he does not bear that burden alone, but rather shares his leadership with Chris Evans’s Captain America. Of the original six Avengers — Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow — two have never had standalone features (Hawkeye, because why would you unless you’re Joss Whedon using “Age of Ultron” as a kind of beta-test for a Hawkeye backstory which is another reason why that film mostly sucked, and Black Widow, because why would audiences want to pay money to see a story centering a compelling female character when she could be repeatedly thrown into other, male-driven stories as a supportive best friend or sudden love interest instead?), while the Hulk’s limited emotional range as a character, coupled with his pre-“Avengers” recasting and the long box-office shadow of Ang Lee’s pre-MCU “Hulk,” has granted him nothing more than an origin story. The remaining threesome each have their own standalone (ish, in the case of the Cap) trilogy at their backs, the three episodes of “Iron Man” an indulgent celebration of rich white men of techno-capitalist ego, the first two “Thor” movies eminently forgettable bro-ish mediocrities which left their demigod hero the least-popular MCU leading man until the revelation that was “Ragnarok” — and then, there is the Captain.
“Captain America: The First Avenger,” the origin story of Steve Rogers, supersoldier, is — much like the first “The Avengers” — a perfectly serviceable and competently made film, if not a particularly memorable one (except for Steve’s final radio call with Agent Carter, the only scene in any MCU movie from Phase I or Phase II which actually manages to achieve the romance for which it is reaching). The story is helped by the fundamental likability of a main character whom every MCU script is very careful to avoid calling “Mr. Rogers,” an everyman underdog who believes in decency and punching Nazis, whose premise rests in the virtue of right action, rather than the cool-guy distraction of quippiness and shiny toys. Cap returns for a semi-solo outing in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” with Black Widow as his temporary sidekick, until Anthony Mackie’s delightful Sam Wilson/Falcon can be fully introduced over the course of the movie; for a long time “Winter Soldier” was widely regarded as the best of the MCU, and its success became the springboard for directing partnership Joe and Anthony Russo (Clevelanders, and Benedictine boys no less) to move onto more ambitious MCU projects, including the recent “Infinity War.”
“Winter Soldier” is, in most respects, a good and well-constructed movie, whose narrative and thematic shortcomings only become evident in their follow-up, although the most problematic of these is obvious even upon first viewing. The notion that HYDRA, the Nazi-adjacent apparatus of supervillainy which Captain America appeared to successfully defeat in “The First Avenger,” not only secretly flourished in his absence but has, in fact, engineered Every Bad Thing In Recent History is more than preposterous; it’s extraordinarily insulting to the majority of humans (who create history, bad and good together, by virtue of our own choices and agency, thankyouverymuch), and it also undermines the very point it attempts to make — such conspiracies appeal precisely because they collapse the incoherent chaos of human experience into a single, easily digestible narrative of power operating in a decipherable world. It’s been a common critique of the MCU that it has suffered from a “villain problem,” with Thor’s conniving and unpredictable brother Loki the only memorable antagonist until the belated arrival of the extraordinarily effective Killmonger. But Loki works for the exact reason that HYDRA doesn’t, crowd-surfing on the random maliciousness of whomever he encounters rather than attempting to engineer overcomplicated supervillainy at the outset, which seems like a fairly pedestrian observation until one recognizes that this is, in fact, how most actual human villainy operates, ad-hoc and improvisational, that this is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness, and that pretending a single, small cabal of Bad Guys bear sole responsibility for All The Bad Things is a cop-out at every possible level. (Do these Bad Guys infiltrate families, to enact domestic violence and child abuse? Are they priests, doctors, and coaches? Is Brock Turner part of HYDRA? Are the same Bad Guys responsible for both the KKK as well as anti-colonialist violence? Who the fuck mistakes “HYDRA did everything!” for good writing?!)
Such vociferous disagreement might seem like railing against a relatively minor point in an otherwise well-put-together film, but it is central to the (many) failings of the successor to “Winter Soldier.” To read about “Captain America: Civil War” is to be constantly reassured that, in spite of the reviewer’s myriad objections, it is a good movie, a bizarre kind of gaslighting explainable only by its comparison to the genuinely execrable “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” with which it shared certain traits, as well as a release year. But not being a terrible movie in nearly every conceivable way does not actually make “Civil War” a good movie, because it’s not. It has good moments — legible fight choreography (made interesting and fun by the introduction of Ant-Man’s scale effects and Spider-Man’s web-slinging into the melee), two new-ish characters (Ant-Man and Spider-Man, once again) whose quips are fresh and funny, and the very presence of T’Challa, the Black Panther, whose plotline is the only one in the movie that is not naseauting — but those moments are cladding around a fundamentally ugly armature, a structure derived from an attempt at moral and political argument so badly formed that it’s easier to believe it willfully bad than to imagine that educated adults might actually think so simplistically.
Why is the core conflict of “Civil War” so odious? Well, in large part, because it’s built on the worst element of “Winter Soldier,” the notion that HYDRA and its agents have infected and controlled so many levers of power that democratic institutions and, indeed, even the idea of democracy itself have become suspect. And this anti-democratic position is delivered by no less than Captain America, who imagines himself a lone wolf arrayed against the corruption of “agendas” — if that sounds so vague as to be essentially meaningless, it is, and it’s also directly from the film, the totality of Cap’s argument against any kind of international agreement to regulate superhero behavior. And here the worst impulses of “Winter Soldier” reach fruition, for nobody in “Civil War” bothers to suggest to the Cap that “agendas” are, in fact, a necessary precondition for democracy, that political self-interest is endemic to the human experience, and that it is through the labor of inclusive, representative institutions that democracy operates to determine which agendas are worth honoring for the betterment of all, and which to cast aside. No: with the wind of HYDRA infiltration at his back, Captain America’s distrust of democracy is understood by the movie to be not only justified but just, validated by a truly absurd eulogy offered by Sharon Carter at the funeral of her aunt, the Agent Carter with whom Cap shared romantic affection in “The First Avenger,” in which it is suggested that opposition to widely held beliefs is inherently morally correct, that iconoclasm can never be just an empty pose, that to be a dick in a sea of kindness is to be somehow noble or courageous so long as you are the lone dick, that rebellion, righteousness, and right are intrinsically intertwined.
This is political philosophy imagined by an angry, and not particularly bright, fourteen-year-old; it’s the self-indulgent self-assurance of a grounded teenager petulant about having their phone taken away. That anyone deigns to take Steve Rogers seriously — that the movie makes him out to be the hero — is frankly vile, and undermined by even a minute’s reflection on the film’s opening action sequence: who invited the Avengers to Lagos? On whose intelligence did they discern the bombing plot? Who provided transportation, who granted visas, who notified the Nigerian police and military? The MCU often likes to pretend that “Tony Stark’s money” and “only the United States has any meaningful government infrastructure” are enough to answer these questions, when it bothers to acknowledge that such infrastructure even exists — this is, after all, a franchise whose first moment of triumph featured Tony Stark cruising down the Pacific coastline in a super-suit, flying to 80,000 feet in a busy patch of airspace near the Santa Monica Pier easily recognizable to many Southern Californians as the LAX takeoff zone, a moment whose triumph rested less on Tony and more on the legions of pilots, air traffic controllers, NTSB investigators, and avionics engineers whose decades of labor in negotiating global safety standards and procedures for civil aviation prevented a major disaster, the very possibility of which the entitled and oblivious Iron Man never even considers, because bureaucracy that works well becomes invisible even when its clear necessity and benefit provide more-than-ample rejoinder to Steve Rogers’s preening confusion of conscience and ego — but if the central conflict of your story is about supranational regulation and you even take the time to throw in a “joke” about Wanda Maximoff probably being denied a visa, well, the absolute and complete lack of care in world-building devoted to these same issues is going to become pretty obvious pretty fast.
(Speaking of lack of care: this movie is so bad that it features two white, middle-aged, sandy-haired men employed by the United States government, both of whom are named Ross. It is damn near unbelievable that any point in the years-long development, making, and marketing of this product, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, nobody spoke up and said “Hey, fidelity to the comics is great and all, but this could be really confusing to most of our audience — there’s a reason that ‘Don’t give two separate characters the same name’ is a basic rule across pretty much all narrative forms — so what if we call this new guy Agent Everett, instead?” Though a minor point, the carelessness that it evinces is truly astonishing, and points towards similar carelessness throughout the MCU.)
And what of that Tony Stark money? Captain America’s egoism forms one-half of the titular Civil War, and so Iron Man’s must constitute its opposite. Willingness to sign the Sokovia Accords might be an admirable bit of growth for a character defined by his ostensible inability to play well with others, if not for the loathsome motivations ascribed to Tony’s newfound institutional inclinations (plus the obvious point that, as the scion of a massive multinational corporation with a long history of government contracts, Tony has spent the entirety of his cosseted life enveloped, supported, and cushioned by institutions, so this is hardly some kind of major turnaround). Rather than accept genuine responsibility — and concomitant consequences — for creating Ultron and nearly single-handedly unleashing a deadly AI on the world, Tony projects the possibility of his own absolution onto the Accords, even suggesting that his signature might win back his momentarily estranged girlfriend, the long-suffering Pepper Potts. The deep stupidity and selfishness of each position in this so-called “civil war” reaches its denouement in its final fight scene, where it’s revealed that Cap’s childhood friend Bucky Barnes — the Winter Soldier himself, framed for the bombing of the UN which killed T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka — assassinated Tony Stark’s parents while under HYDRA control. That the resulting fight is less between Iron Man and Captain America than it is Tony Stark and Steve Rogers is meant to be meaningful, but only comes off as laughable and pathetic when one considers that Tony Stark is a middle-aged billionaire throwing punches because, rather than processing his adolescent trauma, he makes patently ridiculous choices to perform that grief in Stark-designed AI environments in auditoria full of strangers before handing out money to all assembled, a desperate gamble to be liked — “Look at me, I’m smart, I’m sympathetic, and I’m rich! Here’s some cash PLEASE LIKE MEEEEEEE!” — so transparent that it would be unbelievable in someone with his public prominence except that our current US president is still clamoring for the approval of his long-dead father with all the bumbling, obvious insistence of a toddler and he’s seventy-two goddamn years old, so I suppose wealth and privilege can coddle one more than I’d previously thought possible.
The emptiness of both Steve and Tony’s positions is evident in the presence of so many secondary characters, the vast majority of whom have no discernible motivation in regards to the Sokovia Accords. Yes, military man War Machine sides with the government, and a scared Wanda backs Cap — but that nobody else has any real stake in this fight is evidenced most clearly by Tony’s recruitment of Spider-Man, a literal child, whose narrative involvement is basically nonsensical. This emptiness gives lie to the title — this conflict is less of a civil war than a showdown between two egotists — but then, “civil war” has always been something of a construct; the idea that brother fought against brother in the United States of the 1860s is viable only for a narrow range of “brother,” one predicated on whiteness, because for black Americans the US Civil War offered no moral complication and was, indeed, not a discrete event, but merely a brief moment during the centuries-long fight for full personhood and citizenship in which white-on-white violence notably convulsed. Such pat generalizations as “pitting brother against brother” and even “civil war” make for nice rhetorical shorthand (see: the second sentence of this essay), but they also occlude the narratives and experiences of those who fit less easily into such simplified formulations.
Such as: T’Challa. While Steve Rogers and Tony Stark descend into fisticuffs, Wakanda’s newest monarch — who has been pursuing Bucky Barnes out of vengeance for his father — instead confronts the actual villain of the film, a character whose presence is so inessential that I can’t quite remember his name (Zemo, I think?). The Bad Guy mumbles some generic Bad Guy speech and attempts to commit suicide; T’Challa stops him, and demands justice instead. It’s something of a premonition of “Black Panther,” a movie whose argument is rooted not in reluctant or justified violence but rather in genuine, MLK-inspired nonviolence — Wakanda might hold nearly all of the world’s vibranium but it’s only been made into weapons of mass destruction by the likes of Klaue and Howard Stark, colonialist interlopers who align with and enable the logic of Killmonger, the imperialist hegemony of the United States come to life in a single, deadly body (and yes, it is a damn shame that a coherent critique of US hegemony can only be mounted in pop culture when that hegemony is represented by a black body). But the fact remains that, across all of the MCU, T’Challa is unique in being the sole superhero to actively reject violence as a tool; it’s not a universal rejection — it wouldn’t be an MCU movie without an overlong fight scene, after all — but in seeking genuine alternatives to conflict resolution, T’Challa is the man Steve Rogers imagines himself to be.
Who does the United States imagine Steve Rogers to be? The cultural value of Captain America — whose captaincy extends only to a small portion of America, which is to say, the United States of America — illuminates not only how profoundly wrong Steve Rogers is throughout “Civil War,” but also the necessary value of politics itself. Because we don’t need to wonder about how the US would react to such a hero; we have a historical record, because we have a historical analog, and the answer is that we would first elect him president, and then shoot him in the face. A scrawny Irish Catholic from Brooklyn, a scrawny Irish Catholic from Boston — Cap-as-JFK is less of a reach than it might first appear. Steve Rogers repeatedly applied to join the fight in World War II, despite multiple medical deferments, until a doctor recruited him for the purpose of giving him superpowers via genetic manipulation. John F. Kennedy’s superpower was his father’s vast wealth and connections (the truest superpower of all in our world, and if it’s gauche — or Randian — to glorify any of the one percent as heroic it’s only in contrast to our current overlords of inherited oligarchy), which he used to gain medical certification impossible for a mere mortal in his physical condition (which is to say, chronically ill), a neat inversion of the all-too-typical story of money and power being deployed to refuse military service (coughBushcoughTrumpcough). In high school I was taught that Kennedy won the presidency due to his youth and good looks and Nixon’s penchant for televised flop-sweat, but the truth is that he was already a prominent war hero, whose efforts were at least as absurdly over-the-top as any Howlin’ Commando mission. He even had his own Bucky Barnes, deconstructed into a pair: the how-homoerotic-is-this-though devotional friendship of Lem Billings, and the wartime loss of his older brother Joseph, who — jealous of his little brother’s heroic stature — volunteered for a mission that sounds closer to a comic-book plot than an actual military plan (not least because it was named — wait for it — Operation Anvil), an experimental form of proto-drone warfare which cost Joe Jr. his life and left the perennially sickly Jack to assume the mantle of their father’s overweening political ambition.
Captain America debuted, in comics, during the jingoistic era of World War II, and lasted until 1954, when the tempo of such wartime jingoism became unsustainable. His return was teased in a fortuitously timed issue released in November 1963, the same month that devoted Communist Lee Harvey Oswald fired from a window in the Texas Book Depository into Dealey Plaza, abruptly ending the life of the world’s most prominent Cold Warrior. Cap returned in full form the following spring, as the US struggled to manage its grief; resurrected into the burgeoning tumult of the sixties Cap quickly rejected his status as a patriotic symbol, just as the slain thirty-fifth president was converted by hagiography and conspiracy theory from flawed human to an all-purpose symbol, emptied of meaning by ubiquity. The Cap that emerged in the wake of the sixties assassinations turned his back on institutional power, it’s true, but in his cross-country motorcycle-tripping he developed his conscience in the context of encountering the marginalized, siding with student protestors and civil rights activists as he met them and saw them square off against the power of the police. The Cap of the MCU never encounters such otherness, living the entirety of his resurrected life in a cocoon of narrow power and privilege — how can he possibly comprehend democracy as a tool of, by, and for the people if he so steadfastly refuses to meet any of those people?
But even comics-Cap offers a profoundly limited understanding of the moral responsibility of power, and to recognize as much we need only look towards that other inheritor of JFK’s public virtue: that is, Lyndon Johnson, who ascended to the presidency in the wake of Kennedy’s death. The value of throwing a few punches against cops, real though it may be, pales in comparison to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which LBJ accomplished not by turning his back on institutional power but by embracing it. Insofar as Captain America has a guiding precept, it is his oft-professed hatred of bullies; by most accounts LBJ was a bully, an old-school Texas Democrat who stood against the Dixiecrat consensus and twisted every arm he could to pass past-due civil rights legislation, trading on the symbolic currency of JFK’s death to enable an expansive vision of domestic politics that built, if not a genuinely great society, at least a better and fairer one than existed before. Concurrently he led us deeper into the Vietnam War, costing the lives of far too many US servicemen and Vietnamese civilians in an ultimately pointless conflict, and of course proper credit for the Civil Rights Act goes not to JFK or LBJ but to MLK, to the SNCC and the Freedom Riders and Rosa Parks and the thousands who Marched on Washington, to the mattering of so many black lives, who built a cultural moment that politics — at least the most remotely decent practice of it — could no longer ignore.
Politics: it’s complicated.
There’s a famous moment in the history of Captain America’s comics incarnation when he punches a post-Watergate Nixon. It’s built of the same naive triumphalism that expects the mechanisms operating in that scandal to work to the US’s benefit now, against the current occupant of the Oval Office, ignoring not only the power of FOX News — a network built by former Nixon aide Roger Ailes to serve the precise purpose of protecting future Nixonian figures from the slings and arrows of outrageous (self-created) criminal fortune — but also the dynamics of Watergate itself, that Deep Throat was motivated in his expose to Bernstein and Woodward not by a sense of public righteousness but rather personal grievance, that Mark Felt was J. Edgar Hoover’s protege at the FBI and his revelations of Nixon’s misdeeds were retribution to Nixon’s distaste for Hoover, a distaste which — however myriad Nixon’s personal and political failings may be — is eminently justified by the fact that Hoover was a terrible human being whose paranoia had a genuinely awful impact on American public life.
The story of Watergate, like the story of most whistleblowing, has been too readily collapsed into an easy story of heroes and villains, but the reality is that it came about largely because terrible people were sniping at each other, which is true of a fair bit of whistleblowing throughout the corridors of power. People make the right choices for the wrong reasons all the time. They have agendas. LBJ knew this; JFK knew this. Steve Rogers ignores this as a means to hold himself proudly outside of politics, but outside of politics is a place of acquiesence to injustice, to power as currently constituted, and so the ultimate failure of “Civil War” is that, in seeking to position Captain America as an iconoclastic hero, it ultimately deploys him as nothing more than a mouthpiece for the status quo.
I have written at length about the perils of the anti-democratic sentiment embodied by both Iron Man and the Cap, and it begs the question: is similar excoriation merited for “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Black Panther,” both of which center on dynastic struggles in monarchial systems? Is it not hypocrisy to critique the US-centric stories, while allowing those in other contexts to escape such examination?
The answer is that it’s not hypocritical at all, because that’s not what “Ragnarok” or “Black Panther” are about, thematically, while both the entire Iron Man and Captain America cinematic ouevres are very much making arguments about representation and power. “Ragnarok” and “Black Panther” engage with questions of power from an explicitly anti-colonialist perspective, seeking to overthrow the oppressor, and even the most cursory familiarity with history should be enough to remind any readers that democracy has been no check at all against colonialist violence. Both slavery and the white theft of Maori land occurred under representative regimes. The point isn’t that democracy is somehow wrong or useless, but rather that there are certain problems for which it is not a relevant answer — for which its function as an answer is, in fact, a false triumphalism, a way to obscure the injustice being fought against — and those are the problems confronted by “Ragnarok” and “Black Panther.” In the comics, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a storyline about Wakanda’s transition to a constitutional monarchy, and I’d love to see that play out on the big screen but for it to do so effectively it must acknowledge that democracy is not an end-point, but rather, a beginning; not a pat resolution to anti-imperialism but only a step along the way, inclusive representation necessary but not sufficient for a genuinely just society. Given that one of the first events in “Infinity War” is the genocide of the Asgardian refugees, I don’t expect the MCU to explore the idea as it relates to Thor any further — though perhaps we can hope for sincere engagement on the topic in “Black Panther 2” — but it is the likes of “Infinity War,” and its willingness to not only ignore but actively destroy the character and thematic development of the one-off movies, which gives me pause. There are counter-examples, but on balance, this is a franchise that remains more devoted to spectacle and violence than to thoughtful political exploration.
Film is, as the obvious saying goes, a visual medium, and is thus prone to spectacle and violence. Most of us, in most of our lives, do not experience conflict as action movies portray it, but rather know it as words and feelings, perhaps harsh, perhaps passive-aggressive, perhaps public, perhaps private. Words and feelings are hard to render visually, and although film is also a temporal medium and an emotive medium and ultimately a narrative medium above all else, the reliance on concretized, well-visualized representations of conflict is a highly paid Hollywood habit. Sometimes it’s justified by the story. More often that not, it’s not. The tragic limitations of violence as a storytelling device are best represented in the MCU not only by the falseness of Killmonger’s righteous payback but by the relationship between Tony Stark and Peter Parker, which serves as a surrogate father/son relationship particularly for the aging, childless Tony. The tragedy is limned from their first meeting, when Tony recruits a painfully young Peter to join his personal fight with Cap; that Peter disintegrates in Tony’s arms at the end of “Infinity War” is less tragic than the realization that Tony has, over the course of their relationship, nothing to offer his surrogate son except indoctrination into the mindless menace of violence, posing as virtue. What cure does democracy offer here? Forced into the visual vocabulary and comic book logic of the MCU, Captain America’s Nixon-punching becomes somehow more valuable than the vital democratic process of investigation, reportage, and near-impeachment. With some exceptions — “Black Panther,” natch — this is an extraordinarily cynical conception of power, a near-total repudiation of Kennedyesque idealism in which the vast majority of humanity remains absent and silent, and only those who throw the most devastating blows are able negotiators. Hank Pym might be a brilliant scientist, but in the opening scenes of “Ant-Man,” it’s his ability to punch somebody that earns him the most credibility.
How do you solve a problem like “Ant-Man”? It’s the most purely fun of any MCU outing — some might argue for “Guardians of the Galaxy” but, true confessions time, I’ve fallen asleep each time I’ve tried to watch either of them, which is not to say that they are bad movies but simply that I find “Andy Dwyer Goes To Space” vastly harder to connect with than I would have ever predicted — but that fun obscures so many frustrating oversights that to call it good is far too generous. It’s effective at what it does, but that effectiveness is precisely what makes its goals — and all the things it chose not to do — so obvious and problematic. Scott Lang is lots of fun (and, because Paul Rudd might be immortal, looks identical to Mike Hannigan), and Hank Pym gets to be a hero; but why bother hiring Judy Greer only to so thoroughly waste her comedic talents, and as for Hope… watching her on-screen, participating so little in the story while the men around her got to do so much, I felt like a kid again, waiting and, yes, hoping for the female characters on my screens to help drive the story only to be disappointed, time and again, by the consolation prize of a kiss masquerading as empowerment. Yes, yes, I know she gets her own suit in “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” but to have to wait a whole movie for her to get second billing — for her to have to earn what is freely offered to white male characters — only proves my point: equal in the sequel in not equal at all.
Then there’s Luis, portrayed by the reliably luminous Michael Pena, who remains the only major Latinx character in the MCU. Writing that out feels wrong — in as many movies as they’ve made, surely there must be more Latinx representation than one Bay Area street criminal — but it’s correct, and if Hope functions best to highlight the unrelenting maleness of this franchise, Luis, despite his delightful monologues, serves the same depressing purpose for its whiteness.
Such whiteness reaches its peak in “Doctor Strange,” a movie which dedicates itself so wholly to film as a visual medium — and it is a very visually interesting experience — that it forgets to tell an interesting story, too. Stephen Strange’s journey is a bog-standard special-white-guy-goes-to-the-mystical-East-and-becomes-the-most-heroic-hero-who-ever-hero’ed; given that we’ve seen the likes of Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon in essentially the same role, it was only a matter of time before it fell to Benedict Cumberbatch. As the anticipation for “Crazy Rich Asians” has hopefully articulated there is a deep well of interest in stories not only of Asians and Asian-Americans but also of return, of second-generation immigrants experiencing the conflict of visiting their families’ countries of origin, and the bald fact is that “Doctor Strange” would have been a much more compelling story if its titular character had been Asian-American himself. Instead, the filmmakers chose to render the ageless oracle of Eastern wisdom as Tilda Swinton.
To discuss the identity politics of casting and characterization in a major franchise right now is to inevitably invoke thoughts of the MCU’s Disney sibling, Star Wars, the fandom of which has been riven since “The Last Jedi” about the wisdom of straying from the original trilogy’s Skywalker-centric storytelling. To say that the fandom has been riven might be overselling — as in so man matters, not least US politics, a small minority of loud white men have taken to preaching their complaints so doggedly and vociferously that they are easily mistaken for widespread sentiment — but that’s the narrative that has arisen in the wake of a new central trio composed of a girl, a black guy, and a brown guy, and to whom an Asian girl has recently been added. The only white guy left is the villain! Oh no! We are truly oppressed! say fans who can look to the entire original trilogy, any of the prequels, every MCU movie except “Black Panther,” and the vast majority of movies ever made to see protagonists who look just like them; I wouldn’t find their whining worth addressing except that I’ve heard echoes of it in other viewers who should know better, who say things like “Yeah but that whole plotline with Canto Bight was just silly” or “Rose didn’t really have a point, but I guess they wanted to put in an Asian chick” — comments which, much like the complainers themselves, miss the entire thematic argument of “The Last Jedi,” a statement about the power of political nobodies which is made quite plain by a lowly mechanic, who has suffered great personal loss in this fight, persuading a rebel hero who has nothing at stake beyond his own skin to stay and fight, rather than take the easy outs of escape or, later, martyrdom. Canto Bight is similarly necessary, demonstrating the galactic inequalities against which the rebels fight — a necessary corrective in a world where neoconservative Twitter makes sport of supporting the law-and-order regime of the Empire, claiming that the destruction of Alderaan was justified as a military target — grounding the story in broader stakes beyond Sharon Carter’s dumb notion that rebellion needs no justification (a position one encounters in the real world in the ongoing, ahistorical romanticization of the confederate cause) and showing the ultimately fruitless, but not at all pointless, efforts that our beleaguered heroes must make in order to gain even the slightest edge in their battle against imperial power. Imagine “The Last Jedi” without Rose Tyco or Canto Bight and you will imagine a profoundly stupid movie, incoherent politically and narratively, claustrophobically narrow in its perspective on a galaxy far, far away.
And Rey — oy, vey. The invective directed by fans against Rey for not being a Skywalker is puzzling, to put it mildly; it’s like an ostensible progressive being angry that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t a Kennedy (with JFK, RFK, and Teddy as the Leia, Luke, and Chewie, respectively), which is to say, sure, that dynasty was interesting and all, and I guess you’re entitled to your bereavement, but also… you’re kind of missing everything that makes her interesting and exciting, for either value of “her” under discussion. Go ahead and feel whatever complex feelings you have about the matter, but please stop making the rest of us responsible for those feelings, punishing us with your guns or your enormous social advantage. That inchoate sense of loss is named grief, and despite the lavish, escapist promises of capitalism it is foundational to the human condition — to join the rest of us in learning how to process such grief, to accept it rather than turning it outwards as rage, well, I guess this is growing up. I’ve seen “Mr. Rogers” (Fred, not Steve) and I know white dudes are just as capable of emotional maturity as anyone else.
“The Last Jedi” is not a perfect film; indeed, I question whether perfection is possible within the loose, baggy monsters that are contemporary franchise blockbusters. Unlike “Ragnarok” or “Black Panther,” it’s not an excellent film, either, though it is a good one. The difference is perhaps inevitable, for although writer/director Rian Johnson is a deeply well-intentioned white man he has lived his entire life with the soft bigotry of low expectations, whereas directors like Coogler and Waititi — and Patty Jenkins, whose “Wonder Woman” is the sole exception to the consistent terribleness of the films of the DC Universe — must be twice as good to get half as far; to land in the same place — directing franchise blockbusters for Disney — demands, as a simple matter of arithmetic, that women and people of color be at least four times as good, and it shows in their output. Such quantification is partly joking but the reality, for filmmakers attempting to walk the line between inclusion and unheard viewpoints and mass-market studios and predominantly white male audiences, is that women and people color will of course be more skilled at this negotiation, not by any inherent virtue but simply because it is what we practice every single day of our lives; it is the vulgar and exhausting dance by which we are constantly striving to secure our personhood in a world which has made it conditional and earned. We’re good at code-switching and subversion, because it’s how we survive. The most recent apogee of the form is Hannah Gadsby’s transcendent Netflix special “Nanette,” which white-dude comedy bros who happily defend and deconstruct the likes of Andy Kaufman have lined up to declare “not real comedy” on account of it not being comedy that they can access as performers, and of course, if white guys can’t do it then it doesn’t count.
“The Last Jedi” might be inelegant, at least in part, but just wait until Star Wars finds their Waititi or their Coogler or their Jenkins — or their Dee Rees, or their Ava DuVernay, or their Karyn Kusama or Gina Prince-Bythewood, who was supposed to be the first woman of color to direct a superhero movie until “Silver and Black” stalled out. There’s plenty of choices. Let’s see what they can do.
Of course it’s always possible for a film to be misread, as with “Ragnarok,” rather than rapturously welcomed, as “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” were (and even they could be misread by the willful). The cause need not be the studied ignorance of indigenous art and thought; sometimes, it can be purely a matter of studied discomfort. If “Black Panther” recapitulates and subverts “Hamlet” in order to racebend the MCU then it is following a tradition from another Disney sibling, Pixar, whose “Brave” similarly subverted the Bard so as to genderbend their own narrowly imagined universe, where male rats and male cars and male monsters and male robots could all be heroes but a human female, ah, that might be a step too far!
Set in medieval Scotland, “Brave” is an obvious critique of The Scottish Play, but one in which the Queen’s political skill and ambition, as contrasted to her warrior husband, is presented not as cunning or evil but as necessary and intelligent diplomacy; if you must call her Lady M, let it stand for meritorious. “Brave” is often regarded as a mediocre movie, or at least the worst of Pixar, but in truth it tells a very similar story to the celebrated “Moana” with at least as much skill: a headstrong young princess in conflict with a parent over the role she must inherit and its concomitant duties, who goes on an impulsive journey that, though she risks her life, teaches important lessons about selfhood. Both movies reject romance as a resolution, and though only one has songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, that’s not the distinction which made “Moana” the more legible offering — for that we must look at which parent our headstrong young princess found conflict with, for therein lies the crucial difference. “Moana” trades out a young man for a daughter to tell an otherwise conventional story about negotiating fraught paternal expectations; in “Brave,” Merida finds refuge in her father’s obliviousness and derives conflict from her relationship with her mother. Moana’s mother is barely a presence in her daughter’s story, silent and supportive. Merida’s mother is a complicated villain (…ish) who opens us to the complicated nature of motherhood, an interrogation towards which we, as a society, have repeatedly turned our backs. Mother/daughter conflict makes for a less satisfying vision of girl power, but the truth is — as so many women know all too well — mothers, and other female authority figures, can often be the most brutal enforcers of patriarchal values, knowing from their own hard personal experience that accommodating systems of power is often easier than resistance, if only one can cultivate the stomach for it.
“Brave” is an excellent movie, if one is up to the task.
The truth is that I’m not particularly invested in the MCU, or Star Wars, or Pixar; I never dressed up as any of their characters for Halloween, never wrote their fanfic, never invested any of my identity in their stories. I have some fun memories of watching the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS tapes during high school slumber parties but ultimately it’s about as meaningful to me as the Kennedys — I had a friend who used to keep her weed in a bust of JFK, ha ha ha, aren’t random teenage memories fun? — which is to say, hardly at all. It’s not because I was opposed to any kind of fandom but merely because mine lay elsewhere, at X-Ville and Scullyfic and the Gossamer Project, in dressing up as Dana Scully or John Shiban, which is to say, in “The X-Files.” Such a love affair was an easier thing to admit to three years ago; in the wake of the monumentally disastrous revival of the show — six episodes in 2016, ten episodes in 2018 — I’m almost embarrassed to admit to the fandom which veritably defined my adolescence, and yes, it really was that bad. Star Wars fans can bitch all they like but until those movies decide to retcon Kylo Ren so that he’s not the son of Leia and Han but rather Leia and her rapist Emperor Palpatine, we are not even in the same universe of having our beloved and formative stories shit on by an uncaring narrative overlord. When such a reveal is conducted exclusively among male characters, with Leia’s reaction to the news happening belatedly and entirely off-screen — well, then perhaps I might accord their frustrations some legitimacy.
The sheer awfulness of the “X-Files” revival — its malice, its stupidity, its self-importance — made me question whether the show had ever been good at all, or if I’d wasted years of my younger life investing in something venal and profoundly dumb. The truth is that such interrogation was scary and difficult, and easier to replicate publicly with the MCU — to which I have no real attachment — than to document in its messy, overinvolved uncertainty and nostalgia, the endless stream of memories I can append to even the briefest glance between Mulder and Scully. But it was worth my time, and I’d recommend the exercise to anyone with a fandom of their own. Like what you like, but understand and recognize why you like it and where its faults might lie; nobody who has watched “Cougar Town” as many times as I have has any right to demand that art and entertainment should be entirely unproblematic but maybe someday I’ll be able to examine that series with the same clear-eyed unsentimentality as I recently did “The X-Files,” and maybe someday, I’ll be able to move on.
There was one excellent episode in the sixteen hours of the revival, a singular feat which towered over all the rest: “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” by Darin Morgan, who penned four of the series’ finest episodes during its original nine years (the answer to whether or not “The X-Files” is any good is the answer to the same question about the Marvel Cinematic Universe: it can be, and when Darin Morgan (or Vince Gilligan) wrote the story, it invariably was). “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is a strange episode, one that argues against its own existence, against the very concept of a revival, against nostalgia altogether. It’s brilliant and funny and ends with the perennial wisdom of Dana Katherine Scully refusing to try to recapture the past, wanting instead to remember it all, just as it was.
We should all be so lucky.
The truth may not be out there, but the truths are, so many untold stories and experiences waiting to be discovered, to be folded into our common understanding. We don’t find those truths in the same places we’ve explored so many times already and yet sometimes, in the right hands, we can: “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was the third reboot of the series in recent years but somehow the combination of the virtually unknown director Jon Watts, the precocious vulnerability of Tom Holland, and the confident surprise of Zendaya made a movie that was not only good in a narrative or visual sense, but one which was also startlingly honest about being a teenager, a feat unmanaged by any of its predecessors. “Ragnarok” was treading already well-churned waters when it managed to reinvent Thor with its deft decolonialism — of a paragon of far-right paganism, no less — and low-key Kiwi humor, trading a tired heroes’ journey for something simultaneously more fun and more impactful. “Black Panther,” “The Last Jedi, and “Brave” all traffic in new takes on the monomyth, which suggests that there are always new stories left to tell, as least if we’re willing to divorce ourselves from fealty to such insubstantial details as MJ being a redhead — and willing to let new voices tell those stories.
It’s easy to dismiss so much verbiage with the idea that it’s just a movie, that these things are somehow beneath serious consideration, but the combined box office of the MCU or Star Wars or Pixar is larger than the GDP of dozens of countries; these are built on an edifice of massive financial investment and the labor and artistry and livelihood of tens of thousands of individuals. They shape our cultural conversations and our political understandings, our interpretation of our world, and for that it is fair to demand not perfection or even excellence but at the very least a good-faith effort. Political prescription in pop culture is made out to be chorey and unentertaining but “Ragnarok” and “Black Panther” are far from either; further afield there’s stories which don’t rely on heroic archetype at all but yet manage hilarity, like “What We Do In the Shadows” (there’s Waititi again), and easy as it is to joke that we live in the darkest timeline let’s also remember that we’re in a world where “Hamilton” exists, where we can enjoy a musical or at least a soundtrack in which mind-bendingly good rhyme melds with more traditional Broadway standards to impart lessons about early American history while also deconstructing the heroic stature of at least a few of our Founding Fathers — and this is a thing that was not only made but became explosively, historically popular. It may get lost behind the scrim of so many revivals, behind the relentless longing of our nostalgia, but we are desperately thirsty for new stories and new perspectives, and we are learning — haphazardly, perhaps — how to embrace them.
If the hero does indeed have a thousand faces, then we have seen only the most miniscule proportion of them. Maybe it is the need for a hero that is the real mirage; Campbellism has held our culture in thrall for far too long, and perhaps the greatest popular myth of all is the lie that there is only kind of story worth telling.
PS: If you or anyone you know want to buy my complete series of “X-Files” DVDs, plus an Official Fan Club copy of the pilot script, let me know.