by Mark Laherty
On April 21, director James Cameron made some controversial remarks about the Avengers franchise.
“I’m hoping we’ll start getting ‘Avenger’ fatigue here pretty soon. Not that I don’t love the movies. It’s just, come on guys, there are other stories to tell besides hyper-gonadal males without families doing death-defying things for two hours and wrecking cities in the process. It’s like, oy!”
At the time, there was a lot of backlash to this on social media. A lot of people pointed to a perceived hypocrisy; much of the fatigue around the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes down to the sense that they’re churning out sequels on a conveyor belt. Cameron can hardly take the high ground on that topic since he’s working on four (!) Avatar sequels even though much of the original response to Avatar was muted. It’s also unreasonable to say that families have nothing to do with Marvel movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or any of the Thor films.
Cameron gave that interview shortly before the release of Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel’s biggest fireworks show to date. While the response to Cameron showed that people were initially eager to defend the MCU, sentiments have been more mixed since the newest movie’s release. Why is that?
Let’s start by keeping things in perspective: Avengers is still one of the most popular film franchises. A lot of people loved Infinity War because it genuinely succeeded in being one of the biggest, most spectacular action blockbusters yet put to film. Plus, this storyline has had six years of hype if you’re one of those weirdos who’s been keeping track of the continuity like me.
But, there are a few tangible reasons that Infinity War has, to a degree, tripped up the franchise’s popularity. As mentioned, there’s a sense that Marvel Studios are just churning these bad boys out. Another common complaint is that all the Marvel movies are homogenous; every single one is just an Iron Man clone. Since Phase 3 (Civil War onward) kicked into gear, that’s been much less true. But, more than enough damage to their reputation was done in the preceding years.
It’s also quite likely that the hype worked against its success. Consider again those continuity dorks like myself. Thanos was foreshadowed as early as the first Avengers movie in 2012. In purely narrative terms, this was always a strange choice. Adding an evil nameless purple dude to the end of a movie only confused casual movie-goers who didn’t care enough to Google it when they got home. Worse yet, it set Infinity War the task of living up to those six years of anticipation. In fairness, it scratched that itch for many with its over-the-top spectacle.
But, one major and pertinent criticism levelled against it by Film Crit Hulk is that it lacks any real thematic substance. Put simply, it’s not a story that’s about anything. Physically, lots of things are happening; Punch Men are punching other Punch Men. All that stuff is in place and functions exceptionally well. But, it doesn’t feel like it’s making any kind of point or moral argument. If you squint and tilt your head, it could be saying something about whether you should or shouldn’t compromise some virtues for the greater good. Even if that is the case, there’s nothing terribly interesting there. There’s a good deal of arguing on the internet about whether the motivations of Thanos make sense or, indeed, if they should. But, that’s beyond the scope of this piece.
Film Crit Hulk’s piece uses a great example of how Spider-Man’s presence in the movie contradicts the themes of his own standalone adventure, SpiderMan: Homecoming. In that movie, Peter started out wanting to be an Avenger but ultimately learned that it was more important for him to serve on a local level and be a “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.” But, when it comes time for the big crossover, they whisk him off into space with a glib excuse about how “there won’t be a neighbourhood.” It makes a greater-than-zero amount of sense but it still steamrollers over the point of the previous movie and the heart of the character.
“So Tony ‘knights’ him as an Avenger,” Film Crit Hulk writes. “It’s a funny moment, but it only exists because the alternative is that Spider-Man is not in the movie, which is as cynical a narrative choice as I can think of.”
This sort of thing would be a major problem for any movie. It’s even more of a problem for a movie which used its predecessors to hype itself up for six years. When the Infinity Stones or Thanos pop up in Guardians of the Galaxy, I probably wouldn’t have been as excited about it if I knew that I was watching a better movie than Infinity War. If anything, the movie has left me with a greater appreciation for Marvel movies like Thor: Ragnarok, stories that were about things and had a point or moral argument to make.
Another thing that has dampened folks’ enthusiasm is the larger continuity. There’s a prevailing sense that you must have seen all the other Marvel movies to understand Infinity War. A New Yorker review of the movie bemoaning this perceived continuity problem also received some Twitter backlash. Many compared it to someone tuning in for the last episode of Breaking Bad and complaining that they didn’t know who the characters are.
Strictly speaking, neither side of that dispute is correct. A viewer doesn’t need to have seen any of the previous Marvel movies to understand what’s happening in Infinity War. Each time a new character appears, the two directors Joe and Anthony Russo show a great knack for establishing the basic gist of who they are and what you need to know about them to understand their role in the plot. Bear in mind that these are all comic book characters and while many of them have been fleshed out over the years, you don’t need to know about Rocket Raccoon’s fear of attachment or the details of Pepper Potts’ relationship to understand what’s going on in this movie because they just hit you with ‘here’s a cynical talking space raccoon with a gun’ and ‘here’s Tony Stark’s long-suffering wife who’s more than a match for him.’
The problem is that Marvel doesn’t want you to know that the continuity is superfluous. Everyone thinks that the continuity is necessary because they present and market their movies as if the continuity is necessary. The only reason they do that is to try to trick you into watching Doctor Strange out of a sense that if you don’t, you won’t understand Infinity War. I did not, and never fucking will, watch a Doctor Strange movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I understood Infinity War just fine because everything you need to know about him for the purposes of understanding the plot – his powers, his personality, the Time Stone he’s guarding – is all communicated within this movie. But, a lot of people don’t know that because Marvel is deliberately keeping it under their hat. It’s genuinely sad that one of my friends didn’t see Thor: Ragnarok because they felt they needed to have seen all the other movies Thor appeared in first.
As the backlash has played out on social media, you’ve seen some Marvel fans get defensive. This is predictable but also understandable. It’s an observable psychological phenomenon that people are more likely to have a good opinion of a movie that they paid to see. It’s easy to imagine that six years of hype made those fans predisposed to liking Infinity War and overlooking its problems. If it’s in any way good at all (which it certainly is), then they can latch onto that and declare it to be the masterpiece they need it to be. A similar effect could be seen among DC fans upon the release of the catastrophic Batman V Superman.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, viewed critically, has spent the last few years at the height of its powers. A big reason for this is that, in contrast to the earlier slate of Iron Man clones, each movie feels further and further removed from what had become the trademark Marvel style. Doctor Strange, as garbage and terrible as it is, certainly seems different. A friend remarked to me that Thor: Ragnarok is just a Taika Waititi movie and that the new Spider-Man, while perceptibly similar to Iron Man, feels like a dorky younger brother. The Russos’ work on the Captain America movies has a distinct voice which reworked ‘grimdark’ superhero stories in a way that felt fresh after audiences tired of the Nolan Batman movies. Don’t forget the various Marvel shows on TV and Netflix, which feel totally different from any of the movies and are often a critical and popular success.
But, the overall franchise is still in troubled waters. As good as the individual movies are, the concept itself is wearing thin. Even after the release of Black Panther, an afro-futurist sci-fi adventure which functions as a state-of-the nation story for a fictional nation which also functions as a metaphor for and commentary on race issues around the world, there’s still a common opinion that all Marvel movies are just Iron Man clones. It’s unclear if they’ll ever be able to shake that off. Remarks by head-honcho Kevin Feige indicate that they’re going to start making movies that deliberately feel entirely different in Phase 4. That’s a good sign – it means taking chances on idiosyncratic directors. Maybe, given more time, it’ll improve their reputation. It’s certainly a more likely alternative than the franchise stopping; I’d be surprised if it ends within the next ten years.
This reflects the overall state of superheroes as a genre. They’ve been the defining Hollywood mode of the decade with Avengers at the epicentre. DC Comics produced a great Wonder Woman movie and has some promising projects lined up, such as several movies starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. But, overall, they’ve only produced lacklustre Dark Knight clones. The X-Men franchise serves up good movies now and again but has felt aimless ever since the original trilogy finished up over a decade ago.
Spielberg said recently that he thought superhero movies would go the way of the Western. This seems unfair since the main reason Westerns died out was an increased cultural sensitivity to the portrayal of Native Americans as villains or stereotypes. It also seems odd when you consider that he recently signed on to direct DC Comics’ Blackhawk. But, the broad sentiment might well be true. Superhero movies as a genre have ruled the world for years but these trends always come and go. It’s just now beginning to wear out, and Avengers may well find the same fate.
Some may find this sad. That makes sense. It’s not as if the only thing at stake here is Disney’s bottom line. Marvel makes stories. A lot of people obviously formed a personal connection to those stories. When we see that Avengers as a franchise has crested the hill, it’s upsetting not because we feel we’ve been proven wrong about something (although that is an aspect). It’s a downer because it means that someday soon, we might not get to spend time with these characters anymore.
One of the most important things in storytelling is that a story eventually ends. Sometimes you can cheat that rule, like in Doctor Who and the James Bond movies, but even they have endings and phase out actors. Hopefully, when the time comes, Earth’s mightiest heroes can go out on a high note and leave a mostly admirable body of work to look back on.
Mark Laherty writes about media and politics on his WordPress blog. You can also support him on Patreon.