What have the Avengers ever done for us?
I mean, in 22 films since all this assembling began, what has been the cultural impact of the superhero era in cinema?
As the grand finale, the bloated, CGI endgame envelops the planet this weekend, it’s time to reflect on the alleged changing of the game.
Marvel’s numbers are the most incredible, stupendous, jaw-dropping aspect of it all – the box office, the budgets, the admissions, the salaries, the merchandise – all of these blocks have been well and truly busted, bars raised, next-levelness achieved. Increasingly, it takes a Marvel movie to save a summer. No droves go to the cinema anymore, we’re told, unless it’s for a tentpole Marvel movie, or at least a superhero movie, or another of those Disney live action remakes.
So the House of Mouse has kept movie theatres in business. Except now Disney is about to join the streaming universe, too.
Ok. These are interesting aspects of the ‘business’. The craft, too, has been taken to the next level. Sleek, studio professionalism abounds, from the acting to the marketing and distribution and in terms of special effects. I’m not sure how pioneering these have been but I’m sure sound mixing programmes, editing software, VFX techniques have all leapt forward and become new industry standards.
The ‘age replacement’ trend that started with Samuel L Jackson in Captain Marvel -whereby old facial footage of the actor in his younger days is used to create a younger avatar instead of make-up – is extended in this new film to Michael Douglas and, I think, Chris Evans. This rather creepy, ethically debatable method is a big new leap that could be taken up widely.
We seem to have seen off 3D in all this time. Who needed it, who misses it?
But none of this MATTERS. I want to know if the Marvel Cinematic Universe actually contributed to our greater culture, reflected the world on the screens of the new century which it has so dominated? Has it reflected Trump, #MeToo, climate change, wealth-gap, banking crises, racism, plastic, arms deals, human rights, or any of the other great issues of our time?
To me it has been chiefly a destructive force. The number of cities and buildings I’ve seen wiped out at the climax of every movie, the concrete that’s been smashed, the streets totalled, the bridges wrecked – in the first Avengers movie, an entire East European city was picked up and hurled into the air.
The Avengers create rebuilding jobs wherever they go, like some Halliburton contractors in a post-Iraq display of shock and awe. They do not sow peace. They reinforce American imperialism and its sense of macho saviour syndrome, thus ‘othering’ the rest of the world.
The comics, which the late Stan Lee created, came out of the rubble of the Nazis and the Second World War; these movies do not operate in the same moral universe – their raison d’etre has been box office.
Even this finale surely won’t be the finale – Disney aren’t going to nix billions of dollars when characters such as Captain Marvel, the new Spiderman and The Guardians of the Galaxy (God, how I hate that racoon) are still raking it in.
But there’s no need for more story. They ran out of story so long ago that Endgame spends most of its three hour run time desperately flashing back on itself in order to regurgitate and resuscitate old storylines, to undo past endings in order to delay the inevitability of narrative death just another billion dollars longer.
Endgame doesn’t have any people in it. There’s no sense of real danger. Yes, the universe might be destroyed by Thanos, but it doesn’t feel at any point like a universe in which I – or anyone I love – dwells in, so it feels a remote concept. I can’t fear for life on earth if I don’t see any of it outside these superhero and their vast Avengers compound, where no real people live.
And who sweats for these superbeings and their compound? Just because Disney operate in a vast complex of buildings and silos – as do Facebook and Google and all the tech giants – it doesn’t mean that’s where reality resides. Blowing up Avengers HQ is of no consequence to me. In Independence Day, over 20 years ago, the aliens attacked the White House – that, at least until recently, felt like a symbolically troubling act.
Endgame has great technical skill squeezing in so much action and so many characters and at least giving them a close up and line or two of dialogue. That’s a feat. But it doesn’t allow anyone to breathe, to grow, to appeal to the heart or mind.
Who cares which character lives or dies, especially when this film has spent hours telling you that time can be undone, and acts reversed. Especially with the age-defying VFX tech Marvel has pioneered, especially with the attitude that, hey, there’s always a prequel?
Marvel has made an endlessly profitable Moebius Strip out of the movies, but emotions are no longer in its DNA.
Anyway, I wish I didn’t moan so much, but these films don’t look eco to me. So much is destroyed, burned. The big battle here takes place on a parched, pitted apocalyptic wasteland, where characters we know charge head on into a faceless characterless enemy led by Thanos, who we do at least know (he’s Josh Brolin, who was once, you’ll recall, George W Bush, the shock and awe guy himself), although I have no idea what his motivation for wanting to destroy the planet is, actually.
What the Marvel movies has done is create a vacuum of good or bad. It doesn’t matter if you like them or not. The fans have plenty within the universe to debate and dress up as cultural conversation, citing the comics as literary ur-material, using obscure editions from the 1960s as precedent for plot point. And of course, they have every right.
But these arguments aren’t about human behaviour, our reality, our condition. And those are the things I like in movies, delivered tragically or comically or, preferably, both at the same time.
So. You enjoy it as much you wish. Just forgive me if I don’t Marvel along with you.