Ten Years of Marvel: A Moral Reckoning

This article contains massive spoilers.

Let’s start with the obvious: Superhero movies cannot be redeemed. At least, like all human works, they will be saved through fire, an image that has always suggested to me an extreme attenuation and transformation of the saved thing. When God reckons with us—with human history, with human culture, with a rapidly warming world in which $200 million spandex smack-fests may well prove to be among the last major collective human cultural projects, a late entry in the timeline that begins with cave art and Gobekli Tepe—most of this genre will go in the twinkling of an eye.

Or a snap of the fingers.

That is, of course, the gesture by which bemuscled, purple Thanos destroys half the sentient life in the universe in the opening pages of the 1991 Marvel Comics miniseries Infinity Gauntlet. The comic reader knows, from its placement near the beginning of the story, that this moment is merely a problem for the (remaining) Marvel superheroes to solve; the deaths won’t be permanent. The movie adaptation, by contrast, saves it for the very end, where it may fool one or two people. Beloved characters die in a series of artfully staged tableaux. In New York City, planes crash and vehicles fly through the air, suddenly unmanned. (It reflects badly on North American evangelical culture that this short, late plot twist wrings more pathos from a rapture-like scenario than did the entire Left Behind book and film series.) In a move that initially feels bold but, as critics have already noted, loses its effect upon reflection, the film kills off exactly those characters who are known to be Marvel’s newest and most expensively developed cash cows—Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange—while leaving alive those characters whose actors have already announced their desire to leave Marvel behind for a while. (The Black Panther death sequence is especially cleverly done, playing on our expectation that a big corporate movie series will kill a beloved secondary female character rather than the anchor of the second-highest-grossing movie of all time.) It is the moment when the Marvel movies try to “grow up” in the same manner that the Star Wars movies have lately done, and that Game of Thrones did from season one: by killing off major characters. Because we know these characters’ return is inevitable—most likely in the next Avengers movie, due in a year—the effect it achieves is merely that of a ‘30s Flash Gordon serial in which we see characters fall off the cliff, only to have the ending baldly rewritten in the following episode.

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When an artistic medium aimed largely at children decides that it’s going to “grow up,” it usually does so by adding extreme violence, especially against women. Superhero comics went through this process in the 1980s, along with “Doctor Who” and, hilariously, the Hardy Boys books. (This is why it’s always been a category mistake to call Game of Thrones “Tolkien for adults.” Game of Thrones, in its alternating currents of vague mysticism, misogynist fantasy, mass murder, authoritarianism, and nihilism, defines precisely that state of mind we call “teenage boy.”) The Marvel films—unlike the Marvel comics universe of the ‘80s and ‘90s—have taken another and, on the whole, better path to adulthood: an increasingly diverse cast of heroes; more prominent women; awkward stabs at social and ethical significance. They are like earnest, well-meaning, oblivious college boys rather than like steroidal teenage boys.

The series started with 2008’s Iron Man, a highly entertaining and utterly pernicious film that presented an Iraq-weary America with a vision of precise and enlightened American military intervention. It basically echoed President Obama’s vision of a world well-run by American technocrats and their drones. (In a rather on-the nose historical irony, the film’s director shares a name with one of Obama’s greatest speechwriters.) Iron Man has grown with the series. He’s stopped selling weapons; he doesn’t sleep around. His cockiness has come to seem less an expression of an Ayn Rand worldview (“Listen up, parasites, a producer is talking”) and more a good-natured reflex. Most importantly, he fears his own power and seeks to limit it. Thanos, his opposite number in this film, seeks ultimate power; like the younger Iron Man, he believes he can run things right. Specifically, he wants to wipe out half the sentient life in the universe so as to bring “nature” back into “balance.” He’s Thomas Malthus! I appreciated this touch, as Malthus is one of the underappreciated villains of intellectual and political history, and I appreciated as well that Thanos’s plan would no more fulfill even its own debased notions of “effectiveness” than did Malthus’s. (If you suddenly kill half the people, you don’t get an earthly paradise; you get unmanned nuclear submarines.) What he loves is the beautifully simple system in his head; actual life can go knit.

But finally this film, which I’ve seen twice and will see again, is good children’s fiction, at best. It’s heroic fantasy, a genre that belongs to humanity’s childhood. Subvert and lampoon as much as it wants, such films still always bend toward the final fight, the picturesque display of macho heroics. (Is it progress that Marvel’s women get to play this destructive game too?) And if the Marvel moral universe is Christianized enough that self-sacrifice, not just Homeric self-assertion, usually saves the day, it’s usually self-sacrifice of a particularly spectacular variety—it looks cool, as true self-sacrifice so rarely does.

I used to hope that I would outgrow these films someday; with age and self-knowledge, I have stopped expecting this. We need genres, I suppose, for every facet of life, all the bits of ourselves, including the inner kid. But the day superhero movies truly grow up is the day they stop being superhero movies.

  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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