If there is a culture war, nerds won it seven years ago. Since 2012 saw the release of the first Avengers film, self-described geeks have, through reckless spending and uncritical word-of-mouth support, made video games and comic-book movies the dominant cultural forces around the globe. A few short years was all it took to see tweens dreaming of professional streaming careers and a big budget Aquaman film becoming a highly anticipated release.
These massive spectacles rake in billions of dollars and as many adoring fans, forcing any enterprise that can’t match that level of financial gain so far into the periphery it’s a wonder other properties get made at all. Preferring something else, something without pastel-shaded heroes and villains, is not just unthinkable to fans, but increasingly untenable in reality. Even a substantial degree of political discourse is centered around dissecting the social responsibility movies, TV series and games have. More than ever before, audiences view their world through the lens of the content they consume.
What’s more, the distinctions between all of these titles are rapidly blurring. A third of the way through Endgame, the latest and final installment of the Avengers quadrilogy, Bruce Banner and obnoxious anthropomorphic raccoon “Rocket” visit Thor in New Asgard. The once-buff Thor, in a depressive rut following Thanos’ wide scale genocide of half the life on Earth, now sports a hefty beer gut. As Banner and Rocket attempt to persuade him into returning to the team, one of Thor’s roommates plays Fortnite. The action is interrupted for a solid half-minute when Thor hops on voice chat and chews out a rude player, excoriating him as a basement dweller and threatening to shove his arms up his “butt.”
It’s tempting to think of this as self-aware; comic book fans have long been associated with loserdom, and a marginally smarter movie might have the audacity to poke fun at its own audience. But like most moments in Endgame that don’t involve punching, this scene merely asks that the audience laugh in recognition. We know what Fortnite is, and we know what a loser gamer who lives with his mother looks like. It’s funny to see these things on the big screen, just like it’s funny when the Hulk “dabs,” or when Tony Stark quips that Rocket looks like a Build-a-Bear.
It fails at even the most basic of filmmaking conventions. Its sole goal is to force as many characters from within the franchise into its excruciatingly long runtime. Endgame is, quite transparently, a 181 minute cross-brand advertisement. Characters make quips about Axe Body Spray. Everyone seems to be driving an Audi. A dramatic moment involves a ringing Google Pixel, which the camera lingers on for what feels like an eternity. This is excluding the $200 million worth of promotional tie-ins with Ulta, Ziploc, McDonald’s and countless others.
More than that, it is a $400-million advertisement for the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. Every character fans could dream of gets screen time, and Endgame’s status as the second highest-grossing film of all time a mere week after its premiere all but ensures each of these heroes will return to the big screen within the next decade. Likely much sooner, given that nine new movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are slated for release by July 2022. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the apex of American culture; it is our biggest moneymaker, it dominates water cooler talk. It can be discussed with any person of any age.
Marvel fans do not seem bothered by any of this. What does bother them is any critique of their beloved franchise. The very idea that someone might not enjoy the MCU may as well be an admission of alt-right allegiance, (or, in capeshit parlance, loyalty to Hydra). Never mind that billions of dollars have been spent on both the production and simple act of viewing these spectacles. Never mind that the success of these films relies on dodgy alliances with predatory firms like Quicken Loans, as long as more adventures are churned out each year.
There is a comic strip often used as a reaction image when someone complains about a beloved media property. It shows one man pinching another’s lips shut. “Shhh,” he says. “Let people enjoy things.”
What this sentiment really communicates is “let me enjoy what I like without having to answer for it.” On the rare occasions they critique the series, Marvel fans, (or anyone who identifies as part of a “fandom”) are seemingly only capable of having vacuous conversations about representation; how we needs to “do better” by casting more women and making more characters gay. But when it comes to interrogating the implications of having, say, a billionaire playboy arms dealer be the character that pulls back the world from the brink of doom, their lips are sealed. These are films that violently reinforce the status quo, where dissent is always squashed in favor of liberal hegemony. What is last year’s Black Panther if not the story of a global revolution triumphantly squashed by nationalists?
These films do not merely cape for liberalism, though; they enforce it. The sheer number of ventures involved in raising funds for, producing, filming, marketing and releasing these films demands compliance from nearly every industry. A staggering amount of resources, financial and otherwise, are diverted annually to ensure the success of these ventures. Google, Quicken Loans and Ant-Man may all seem like disparate entities, but their connections to and reliances on each other run quite deep.
Frankfurt School grouch Theodor Adorno made essentially the same point in Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which he famously attacks the ascendant “culture industry”:
“The people at the top are no longer so interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes more open, so its power grows. Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. They call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt about the social utility of the finished products is removed.”
This was first published in 1944, when the dominant film studios were Warner Brothers and MGM. (Now, of course, things have changed significantly: the two big players are Warner Brothers and Disney.) All that’s changed are the franchises, and even those have little in the way of meaningful difference. As Adorno said, “The varying budgets in the culture industry do not bear the slightest relation to factual values, to the meaning of the products themselves.”
What does it mean to “let people enjoy things” when those things are not just emblematic, but a primary cause of moral and aesthetic rot? What are the ramifications of letting someone enjoy franchises that not only function as blockbuster advertisements, but shape worldviews? Why is it acceptable for adults to develop full-scale obsessions with these titles?
Superhero movies are blatantly transparent power fantasies, just like the comic books they’re based on. Appeals to diversity happen not to rectify unbalanced power structures, but to let more people feel like they, too, could be Spider-Man. But as much as we may be tempted to believe the average Marvel fan is like the basement living Fortnite player from Endgame, the truth is that these are movies for the average person. And in an era as hopeless as this one, where collapse may very well begin at any moment, the average person wants to feel powerful, even if that means infantilizing oneself.
For all the surface-level wokeness the Marvel Cinematic Universe inspires, at heart it thrives on a sort of blase centrism. Both the right and left make allowances for what values art and entertainment ought to instill in viewers. But when it comes to superhero movies, all that matters is the individual’s response. Left critiques of the franchise’s corporatism and right critiques of its identitarianism are no match for what is ultimately the dominant force in contemporary entertainment: pure, libidinal enjoyment.
Bombastic effects and painfully long fight sequences coupled with jokes anyone of any age can understand; this is the formula studios have spent decades refining. Any modicum of intelligence possessed by the best of the comics, (and there is very, very little) is completely drained in favor of material designed to appeal to literally everyone. These movies take no risks. They are thoroughly vetted, focus-grouped, market-tested. That one could walk away from three hours of such blatant pandering feeling anything other than insulted is indictment enough of our cultural moment.
None of this is to say the films of the past were somehow better, before the advent of nine-figure budgets and movie stars signed to thousand-picture deals. Nearly all of our cultural output is guilty by association. But resistance to its most ruthlessly cynical urges does seem to be at an all-time low. These films have nothing to say but plenty to hawk, and we’re perfectly content to funnel all of our disposable income directly into Disney’s pockets.
No one should be “allowed” to enjoy something that thinks so little of its audience. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not disgusting because it’s the first to do this, but because it’s one of the first to do it without pushback. Even film critics can’t be pissed to do their job and thoughtfully pick it apart, evidenced by Endgame’s near universal acclaim. Ultimately, it’s because these movies speak to one commonly held desire: to be coddled in the face of oblivion.
Maggie Siebert is a writer based in Providence, RI. Follow Maggie on Twitter at @magdacsiebert.