Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Children of Generation X, Part 1: The Marvel Cinematic Universe Ten Years Later

I think one of the worst aspects of our New Digital Lives is that the Internet tends to speed up and also shorten lengths of time between Intellectual Property discussions. You don’t have the luxury of processing and mentally digesting genre film and TV anymore; the same day that a movie debuts, there’s a dozen articles on the Easter Eggs you missed. No need to see the movie a second time, or really even pay that close attention in the first place. Stupid Internet.

The thing is, I need time to think about this stuff. Always have. I get some brilliant insights, usually during the first viewing, but I need to let them percolate and cook for a while. Sometimes, I figure out that my insights aren’t that insightful. Other times, I have a working theory that takes years to develop.

Case in point: Iron Man, when it first debuted, ten years ago, was just another super hero movie, in a fairly unbroken stream of Marvel Comics movies that ranged from Soup to Nuts. For every X-Men, there was an X-Men: The Last Stand. For Every Spider-Man, there was a Spider-Man 3. For every Daredevil, there was an Elektra. They weren’t all great, but they were nowhere near the awfulness of the failed Marvel TV and movie efforts that came before them.

But Iron Man had this different vibe for me. It just felt different, never mind the assurances from the studio that it was going to be “unlike anything that’s come before.” Yeah, right, pull the other one, Charlie. This ain’t my first rodeo. But it really was true in the case of Iron Man.

That super cool landing became Iron Man's signature move. 
There was an internal metric that made the world seem not closed off, as opposed to the X-Men universe, which made it clear that there wasn’t anything else in the world except mutants, so please don’t ask. Granted, some of this seeming spaciousness was implied. The mention of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the appearance of Nick Fury at the end (looking exactly like the Nick Fury from Marvel’s Ultimates comic, no less) were the only hints at what was to come; namely, Rhodes glancing at the armor and muttering, “Next time.” Okay, we get it. You want to do more movies.

It wasn’t until The Incredible Hulk came out the same year that we saw, imbedded in the movie, more clues in the form of Easter eggs. The very idea that the Hulk was a failed experiment to re-create the Super Soldier serum that made Captain America was, well, the first real clue that we were going to get a Captain America movie set in World War II. No way of knowing if it would be any good, really...except for that one scene with a pre-Abomination Emil Blonsky running in to engage the Hulk. Watch it again, if you don’t remember, and see if his moves don’t look exactly like the moves Cap used in comics all the time. I remember watching that scene and saying to myself, “We’re going to get Cap! And this is what he’s going to look like in action!”

I remember back in the late 1980s and early- to mid-1990s when I was working in comic shops, and as was frequently the case, a crowd would gather and let me hold court about comics, movies, and what-not. We came to the mutual conclusion back then that a JLA movie could never work, because it took them two whole hours to make us care about Batman, and there was no way you could introduce the concept of Flash, Hawkman, and Green Lantern into a normal-length film and expect it to not be weird and rushed and ultimately, very cheesy. We saw the Cheese-Creep happen at the end of Superman 2, and then it blossomed like a flower in Superman 3 and Superman 4. We were surprised by it in Batman Returns (remember the penguins with rocket launchers?) and it only got worse as the 90s progressed.

No, we reasoned, the only way to do it right would be to make a separate movie for each character and then you could make a Justice League movie and clean up because all of the fans would come together no matter which character they liked, see? It was genius...but it would never work, because what movie studio wants to make five movies, just so they could make a sixth one?

Fast forward to the 21st century. Super Hero movies are now not only probable, and even possible, but a going concern. Special effects were finally able to duplicate (with an army of programmers and months of time) on the screen what Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko could do with a pencil and ink on Bristol board in a single afternoon. We’ve seen Spider-Man. We’ve seen Wolverine. We got Nightcrawler, and Colossus, and even Daredevil.  It wasn’t a far stretch to get Iron Man, or a better Hulk (don’t get me started on Ang Lee’s movie. It’s terrible. And I love the Hulk, a whole lot). And even Thor and Captain America were great—really satisfying to watch in their own way. Each one getting it more right than wrong. Highlighting the strengths of each character and story.

They were wise to put this shot in the trailer. It's still cool.
But when I saw The Avengers for the first time, it cut deeply into my chewy geeky center. That movie, probably more than any of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to date (as they were now called), actually felt like a Marvel comic book. Everything from the snappy banter to the heroes’ first meeting where they end up fighting each other until they realize they are after the same thing, from the quiet, interpersonal moments, to the sweep of the epic scale battle...this was what comics looked like in my head; George Perez Avengers comics, written by Roger Stern.

During the epic final battle, there’s a scene wherein Cap vaults into a bank where the Chitauri had a gaggle of civilians held hostage, and he does his shield-slinging thing, of course, and gets the people out of harm’s way. But the bad guys throw a grenade down, and Cap sees it and in a split-second, he leaps into mid-air, tucking and crouching behind his shield (which absorbs kinetic energy, remember), protecting himself from the blast, which knocks him backward out the window. I turned to my wife and said, “That was a Jack Kirby move, right there.”

That was the real start of it, looking back. That’s when we got Thanos for the first time. All of the building blocks were there. It was clear that Marvel (and soon, Disney) were playing a very long game. But the success of even the early movies turned on something else. Something that people have incorrectly mis-attributed to “the same plot, over and over again.” It ends up being the beating heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the family unit.

Everything important in the MCU hinges on family, both nuclear and extended, and the heroes (and villains) relationships with primarily their father and occasionally, their mother. These movies are resonating with members of Generation X because they are in part written by members of Generation X, who grew up reading Bronze Age Marvel and DC comics in the 1970s and well into their teenage years in the 1980s. The latchkey kid generation grew up and these movies are an ongoing conversation with absent and/or inadequate parents.

In Iron Man, Tony Stark is living in his father’s shadow. His substitute father, Obie Stane, ends up betraying him and Iron Man dispatches him handily. In Iron Man 2, Nick Fury steps in as Tony’s substitute father because Tony has no emotional rudder and he actually grounds Tony, confining him to his house (hardly a punishment). Despite a scene where an aged Howard Stark tells Tony how much he loves him, Tony doesn’t seem to quite believe it. Or maybe the barn door has been open for too long. Either way. Tony starts to take a little responsibility for his actions. A bit.

Later, Tony creates Ultron, a child of high intelligence and zero empathy and wisdom. He decides the best way to protect the world is to kill every human. Like his creator, he makes the Vision in his new image of himself, but his “child” is stolen from him and the Avengers give the Vision life, creating an ideal Dad who can actually wield Thor’s hammer. He’s the only other one who can.

All of this guilt drives Tony into a kind of self-therapy. He’s out of control and he knows it. The only way to course correct is to swing his emotional pendulum the other way. This causes problems, of course. He’s not ready for responsibility and those bad choices come back to haunt him in Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Civil War.

The Hulk is the living embodiment of men behaving badly. Driven by his unmanageable anger—a creature of the Id, he is opposed by his girlfriend’s father, who doesn’t like Betty hanging around Bruce Banner. It’s a classic “That Boy is No Good For You” situation, only General "Thunderbolt" Ross is actually spot-on in his assessment. Later, when Mark Rufalo takes the role, Joss Whedon puts these words into his mouth: “That's my secret, Captain: I'm always angry.” The Hulk eventually gives into his anger completely, shutting himself off from the people who care about him, like Natasha Romanov, and running away from his problems. It's unfortunate that Ang Lee's movie really muddied the pond from which the Hulk's current origin is derived--namely, that because he was under the thumb of an abusive parent, his manifestation from the gamma exposure is that of a wounded child, flailing out in anger. We don't see that so much in the MCU, but it doesn't take a giant leap to see the subtext.

Thor and Loki are constantly in competition for their father’s love. Thor is delightfully immature because he wants for nothing, privileged and entitled. Loki has to keep proving his worth, to stunning indifference. Odin favors Thor over Loki and this bit of bad parenting decision sets the whole movie in motion. Loki plays father against son in a perfect imitation of the Shakespearean melodrama that fueled the Thor comics for decades. And that theme runs through all three Thor movies and right into The Avengers, as well.

Captain America has no father. He’s trying to become a man, literally and figuratively. He calls people “son.” He’s a member of The Greatest Generation, something that actor Chris Evans brilliantly alludes to in subsequent portrayals, but never over-plays. Cap becomes the heart of the Avengers, the symbolic patriarch, which cuts right across Iron Man’s bow, since—and this almost comes out in Captain America: Civil War verbatim—“Dad always liked you best!” Cap becomes Iron Man’s target for all of his displacement and unresolved feelings about his father by treating him like the older brother he never had, and moreover, Cap never was.

Cap, on the other hand, has set to rebuilding a semblance of a family for himself. Black Widow, Falcon, and eventually, Bucky, the brother he chose to have, all factor heavily into his personal and professional choices. This includes extending his fatherly protection to Scarlet Witch, who lost her parents and her brother. Black Widow he treats as a sibling. She’s a product of Soviet Spy Programs, and it’s her mother-figure who does the betraying. Father Russia holds no sway for her, since it forced her to become sterile. No wonder she went elsewhere.

War Machine, The Falcon, and Hawkeye are all versions of the career soldier, the person who placed the mission before themselves. Only Hawkeye has the holdout secret family—who he abandons to go save the world—and this weirdly is the most normal familial relationship than anyone else’s on the team; a wife and two kids, with one on the way, in an out of the way farmhouse. He’s gone for weeks at a time, but the family knows he’s being a super hero, so it’s presumably okay. What would be untenable in the real world is a comforting normalcy is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, the whole movie resonates with conflicts relating to broken homes. Gamora and Nebula, daughters of Thanos rebel after the years of abuse they suffered by his side. Star-Lord has no mother, an absent father, and a terrible step-father who turns him into a criminal. Drax lost his wife and child because of Thanos. Rocket Raccoon has no family, nor, presumably, does Groot. Later, Star-Lord meets his father and realizes he’s a monster, and his step-father, Yondu, tells him he loves him. Gamora and Nebula work through their sibling rivalry. And Star-Lord realizes his created family fills the emotional needs, even as he’s honoring his step-father’s death.

Ant-Man is trying to be a good father to his daughter, and he is hamstrung by the decisions he made in his youth. Hank Pym is trying to protect his daughter from the dangers that using the shrinking tech presents, as he feels responsible for his wife’s death. Hope Van Dyne, meanwhile, is eternally pissed at her father for not letting her spread her wings. And later, about lying to her regarding her mother’s death. Together the three of them team up to stop the adopted son who betrayed the family trust—and he’s also mad at Pym for not sharing his legacy with him.

Doctor Strange would seem to be an exception, but his narcissism and infantile behavior, which seems to echo Tony Stark’s initial character arc to a lesser degree, is more akin to the man-children of Generation X who have grown up but are not completely mature. Strange’s Journey into Mystery (ahem) represents his fledgling attempt at becoming a functional adult with emotional maturity, something he’d previously lacked. Once his hands are mangled, he has no identity, or so he thinks. The Ancient One teaches him that the world does not, in fact, revolve around his hands, and Strange begins to re-engage with the world just in time to save it.

Out of respect for my readers, I’ll not rehash Spider-Man’s origin, nor should I have to point out what the death of Peter Parker’s parents and also his Uncle Ben do to him. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Spider-Man’s story is about learning how to be an adult when you are still just a kid. Classic Generation X. And Peter, looking for a male role-model, finds one (not a good one) in Tony Stark. Meanwhile, the Vulture is looking to provide for his family the best way he knows how. He’s being a good father and husband and also trying to protect his daughter from Peter. Lots of teenage angst, especially since the film intentionally mimics John Hughes movies from the 1980s in structure and content.

Black Panther has stepped into his father’s shoes and onto his throrn after his untimely death. In the most pointed and not-even-allegorical scene, he confronts his father’s living ghost-spirit and tells him his decisions, made twenty years ago, were wrong. Killmonger is created following the death of his father at the hands of Zuri by way of King T’Chakka. Black Panther has to contend with the sins of his father revisited upon him.

Even the TV shows follow this pattern. Iron Fist? Dead parents, abusive and manipulative father figure and ersatz siblings. Daredevil? Living in his father’s shadow. Abusive foster father figure in Stick. Kingpin? Abusive father. He passed his rage onto his son, who is a giant-sized manipulative sociopath. Luke Cage? Has a half-brother he didn’t know about. His half-brother did know all about him, though, and he’s the villain, enraged by what he thinks Luke Cage got that he didn’t; namely, an acknowledged father. Jessica Jones’ parents died, and she grew up with a foster mother who treated her like a second-class citizen and lavished her attention on her foster sister instead.

Not a scrap of Spandex in sight. And we're cool with that.
The Runaways. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Even the God-Awful and not-worth-watching The Inhumans. It’s all there. All over these stories featuring characters trying to get their shit straight, to figure it all out, to be better versions of themselves. I think it’s partially why the women in these movies are more capable and also seem to have more agency and less emotional encumbrance. They simply don’t have the baggage that the men have. Shuri is certainly unaffected by her father’s decisions. Only T’Challa internalizes them in his self-struggle. As angry as Hope Van Dyne is, she’s twice as capable as Scott Lang in or out of the Ant-Man rig. Black Widow establishes her bad-ass-ness in Iron Man 2 and only gets better through her five subsequent movie appearances. She’s now one of the strongest characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of utility and agency. Scarlet Witch comes of age at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Gamora has assumed the matriarchal role for the team in Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, which only highlights Star-Lord’s arrested development. When Hela (now Thor’s sister in the MCU) shows back up in Thor: Raganrok, she takes over the family business by blowing up the household. Firstborn and daddy’s favorite, until she outstripped him, she’s as angry as Loki is, but for different reasons. And she wins the movie and sends Thor packing.

Jessica Jones is a work in progress, even if her decisions for dealing with her issues aren’t particularly healthy. Apart from the explosive anger, she doesn’t read as masculine at all. Her agency comes from her surviving the abuse at the hands of the Purple Man. Contrast this with any of the male heroes in The Defenders, whose personal damage informs all of their choices.

This notion of surviving broken families is the engine that has driven the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first three phases. These 19 (and counting) movies have become their own genre, pushing away from the more generic “super hero” movie formula that DC and Warner Brothers is still struggling to update some thirty years after they created it. By keeping the characters more or less intact and recognizable in terms of personality and presence, the filmmakers have latitude with costume and appearance, something that didn’t used to be the case. All that remains is plot and story, and in the case of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these “heroes with problems” look a lot like our own problems. Thus, they are relatable and more easily personally identifiable to a mainstream audience. Only in the final acts of their movies do their true comic book origins come to the fore, where they can blast, swing, fly, and punch their way free of the conflict. 

But it’s always a temporary fix, because violence never really solves the problem. Howard Stark still never hugged Tony. Star-Lord’s dad is still a colossal asshole. T’Challa will always be compared to his father. These things can’t be punched away. And that leads the characters to those quiet moments, the conversations and introspective sharing that shows us that these heroes have feet of clay. They are as flawed as the rest of us. We couldn’t do any better in the armor, or with that shield. And that is as much of a comfort, knowing we’re doing the best that we can, as it is knowing that the Avengers are always going to protect us from the bad guys.

Part 2 coming tomorrow. 

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