(I swear, my next post will not be about comic books. Maybe.)
“Those arguing that BLACK PANTHER is the first MCU movie to A) be about something and B) take place in something resembling the real world are enabling cultural amnesia…”
So, the above tweet thread popped into my time line the other day (I have a screen cap of the thread but haven’t contacted the tweet owner so I’m not giving their name). I’ve seen some version of it after every single MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) movie was released or premiered. And magnificent as the reduction of the ridiculous argument that the Marvel movies aren’t “realistic” to “enabling cultural amnesia” is, I think it deserves a swift, facile pass down the list of the movies and Netflix series released to date (February 2018) with an eye to highlighting some of the more prominent ‘real life’ issues discussed within the MCU narrative.
I’m not going to even get into the meta textual analysis of the whole universe, or any deep reading of theme and structure, only the pure text and obvious sub-text of each production, counting the Netflix series as whole entities.
I’m also not talking about tone or genre here (most Marvel movies are “genre” films with super heros grafted onto them, which is one of their strengths). Just the actual issues dealt with by the scripts. Also only working in the Netflix TV series for simplicity, since they play as long movies (and then I don’t have to talk about Inhumans, which is a flaming medical waste dumpster fire Scott Buck SUCKS).
Iron Man (May 2008) — Reinvention of Identity, Atonement, Absent/Toxic Fatherhood, Heroism, War Profiteering
The Incredible Hulk (June 2008) — Self-Control (same damn thing every Hulk movie is about), Aging, Trust and Mistrust
Iron Man 2 (May 2010) — Addiction, Revenge, Friendship, Fatalism, Fatherhood
Thor (May 2011) — Identity, Adoption, Jealousy, Self-Worth, Fatherhood
Captain America: The First Avenger (July 2011) — Patriotism, War, Love, Loyalty, Self-sacrifice
The Avengers (May 2012) (A generational defining blockbuster of huge, still unfolding influence. A literal line in the sand: there was before Avengers, and there was after and the landscape of both pop culture and comics themselves were radically changed) — Teamwork, Loyalty, Friendship, Self-sacrifice, Heroism
Iron Man 3 (May 2013) — PTSD, Terrorism, Mistrust of Government, Disability
Thor: The Dark World (Nov 2013) — Er, Dark Elves are assholes?
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (April 2014) (The crowning jewel of the MCU to date, both a magnificent action movie and a complex spy narrative/character study) — Freedom vs. Fear, The Surveillance State, Government Control, Trust, Mistrust, Friendship, Loyalty, Mental Illness, Memory, Identity, PTSD…It goes on and on. A subtle, layered, nuanced script massed with brilliant performances and two of the greatest action sequences in film history.
Guardians of the Galaxy (Aug 2014) — Found Family, Loyalty, Fanaticism, Being Neuro-atypical
Daredevil (Netflix) Season 1 (April 2015) — Faith, Vigilantism, Power of the Press, Morality vs Law, Found Family, Friendship, Identity, Fatherhood…this is getting silly
Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 2015) — Identity, Fatherhood—man those two come up a lot don’t they?—Collateral Damage, War Orphans, The Nature of Consciousness, The Morality of AI, Colonialism, Self-Sacrifice
Ant-Man (July 2015) — The Carceral State, Fatherhood…someone at Marvel Studios has ISSUES…Science and Morality, Arms Dealing/Profiteering
Jessica Jones (Netflix) Season 1 (Nov 2015) — Rape, Stalking, Medical Experimentation, Exploitation of Minors, Stage Parenting, Free Will, The Patriarchy, Harassment, Fear vs Self Defence, Drug Abuse, Alcoholism, Friendship…Parenthood (there was a mother for once)
Daredevil (Netflix) Season 2 (March 2016) — PTSD, Violence as Social Justice, the Worth Of Life, Corruption, You Never Fall All The Way Out of Love, Identity, Fate, Faith, Fatherhood (Both Stick and Punisher).
Captain America: Civil War (May 2016) (Another complex, layered movie: bright, fast and vibrant until the finale, which drops the whole tone into an intense, agony racked minor key without being jarring or tacked on) — Friendship, Loyalty, Found Family, Revenge, Forgiveness, Identity, Loss
Luke Cage (Netflix) Season 1 (Sept 016) — Black Culture Under White Supremacy, the Carceral State, Ethical Policing, Identity, Freedom, Responsibility, Political Corruption, Police Violence, Faith, Brotherhood, Sexual Abuse, Weapons Dealing
Doctor Strange (Nov 2016) — Disability, Pride, Nihilism, Brains over Brawn
Iron Fist (Netflix) Season 1 (March 2017) — How To Make Danny Rand Boring (Go AWAY Scott Buck, no one likes you)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (May 2017) — Toxic…Fatherhood holy cow Marvel dads go hug your damn kids already this is getting silly, Found Family, The Truth Shall Set You Free,
Spider-Man: Homecoming (July 2017) — Responsibility vs Power (as all Spider-Man movies are, it’s legally mandated in each script), Coming of Age, The Plight of the Blue Collar Worker, Surrogate Fatherhood…I give up, seriously at least they don’t SHOW Uncle Ben dying for once…Young Love, Friendship
The Defenders (Netflix) Season 1 (Aug 2017) — Responsibility, Teamwork, Loyalty, Love, Self-Sacrifice, Forgiveness as Metaphor
Thor: Ragnarok (Nov 2017) — Immigration, the Immigrant Experience, Colonialism, Post Colonial Revisionist History, Identity, Fatherhood…I’m just writing that on all the lists now, it’ll be somewhere in the narrative…
The Punisher (Netflix) Season 1 (Nov 2017) — PTSD, Veteran’s Rights, Gun Violence, Corruption, Freedom vs Fear, Loyalty, Identity, Fatherhood…OMG ENOUGH ALREADY
Black Panther is due to be released the day after this posts. It’s pretty clear it’s about many complex themes: Afro-futurism, the black experience, leadership, colonialism, Identity politics, the rage of the outcast, the power of technology…probably Fatherhood in some way.
Just looking at that list makes my jaw drop at the extensive reach and broad expanse of the issues dealt with by the MCU.
I joke but the re-occurrence of both Identity and what boils down to “Daddy Issues” are to be expected. These are essentially features-not-bugs of the superhero narrative. It’s fairly clear across the board that many comic creators (still mostly males) have issues with their fathers or the social construction of fatherhood and masculinity. It’s also the reason “Found Family” is a reoccurring themes. For males in the patriarchy, being an artist and a writer make you an outcast, un-masculine, odd. Add that to the fact that many of the golden ages creators for the most enduring characters had other factors in their lives that made them outsiders: religion, race, intellectual pursuits. It’s probably a whole article on it own that the male creators of two of the most powerful and interesting female heros—Wonder Woman and Big Barda—based their narratives on unusual personal circumstances with powerful women. But the creation of a complete whole from disparate parts remains an ongoing baseline for superhero comic in particular.
On the above list I can find movies that range in tone from hyper serious Cold War spy drama to gut wrenching character studies to pure action movies to flat-out comedies. And in some ways the comedies have had the most serious themes buried in them, woven into a light, happy narrative.
Movies and pop culture do not have to be grim, dour, over-wrought or weighed down with portentous “signifiance” to make interesting points and have important themes.
It’s not the fault of the art if you can’t recognize a point being made around a joke or in the middle of a fight scene. If you need to be bashed over the head with melodramatic music stings and heavy-handed speeches to see something, well…that’s on you.