I saw Ex Machina recently. It’s a handsome movie, up for two Oscars in 2015. It won for Best Visual Effects. It’s science fiction, my favorite art form, asking questions about intelligence and humanity. When is a robot intelligent? Can it be human?
I had problems with it. There are four characters. The two men are human and jerks. The two women are robots. The robots win, which might be a feminist statement. But I don’t like seeing women as beautiful, humanoid robots. It reminds me too much of growing up in the 1950s.
(I should add that the director of Ex Machina, Alex Garland, is making a movie version of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation novel. I look forward to seeing that. Garland is worth paying attention to.)
I guess I would say I found Ex Machina interesting. But I didn’t love it, and I saw it only once. On the other hand, there are the Marvel movies. . . . I own most of them. I have watched them repeatedly. Of course, they are classic Hollywood action movies, full of bangs and crashes. They are hideously expensive to make, which means that they have to earn a huge amount of money. Because of this, they have to be popular and ambiguous. All kinds of people have to like them. The Sad Puppies liked Guardians of the Galaxy, which I also liked, even loved. The movie spoke to them and me. I assume they saw an old-time space opera and a white man saving the galaxy. I saw a diverse team (there is even a walking tree) and the underclass triumphing over authoritarian evil. Of course, the way they triumph is to save a planet that reminded me of 1950s American suburbs, though with a population of many different colors.
This is what I mean about ambiguity. You can see the movies in different ways, so they fit into your personal worldview. This is how Hollywood makes money.
At this point the Marvel project includes twelve movies that are out, plus eight more planned or in production. (It’s hard to count, because other studios are making movies based on Marvel comics. I am only counting the Marvel Studio productions that are in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) The movies are averaging something like 100 million dollars apiece to make. In toto, the project is going to cost two billion dollars plus. This is huge, and the project has to be genuinely popular to make back the money spent on production.
So what are these movies about? What is their appeal? I am mostly going to talk about their appeal to me. Watching them reminds me of the 1960s, when I and my friends watched movies looking for critiques of American society and for signs that America could be changed. I wonder now—seeing Black Lives Matter, the campaign for a $15 minimum wage, and the Sanders campaign—if we are moving into a period like the 60s, when change is demanded and may even happen. We had better change. Winter is not coming, but Global Warming is.
I am currently fascinated by how the movies interweave. I’m not sure if it’s possible to understand The Avengers (for example) if you haven’t seen Thor and the Iron Man movies. How can you understand Loki in The Avengers, if you haven’t seen Thor? How can you understand Tony Stark without his back story? These movies are a single, huge, long, interwoven epic tale.
Two themes run through the movies. One is corruption and uncertainty. The world—the universe—is full of hidden enemies: Obadiah Stane in Stark Industries, Loki in Asgard, Hydra in S.H.I.E.L.D. In addition, of course, there are the unhidden enemies and the ordinary crooks. Guardians is a wonderful tour through the galaxy’s criminal underclass, a dark opposite to the clean, bright, middle-class planet of Xandar, which the Guardians finally save.
Even the good guys are unreliable. Nick Fury is a good guy, mostly, but utterly unreliable, constantly lying and manipulating. You don’t really know where you are in the Marvel universe.
The other theme is the heroes. In The Avengers, a Council member calls them freaks. (The Council is Nick Fury’s supervisor.) In Avengers: Age of Ultron, they call themselves monsters. Cap is a person out of time. Natasha and Hawkeye are trained killers, even though Hawkeye has a Grant Wood–idyllic rural home and family. Pretty weird, when you come to think of it.
Tony Stark is a former arms dealer and something close to a sociopath. (He is only human and likeable when he is working, either as Stark the engineer or Iron Man.) Thor appears to be a perfectly normal Norse god, but that makes him pretty odd on Earth. We all know what Bruce Banner’s problem is.
The heroes of Guardians are criminals. The hero of Ant-Man is an ex-con, as are the buddies who help him pull off the big caper.
So we have an ambiguous universe, where it’s hard to be sure who you can trust, and our heroes are freaks and criminals, struggling with their pasts and the present world.
What is the appeal? Well, the moral ambiguity is interesting, and the over-the-top storytelling is neat. We are in the world of myth, of gods and demi-gods and folktale heroes: Paul Bunyan, Annie Christmas, and Hercules. (If you don’t know Annie Christmas, she is a tall tale heroine, a river boat pilot who is the only person on the Mississippi able to beat Mike Fink. In some versions, she is black. In other versions, she is white and has the finest, thickest, most curly moustache on the river.) Maybe every era needs tall tales and myths.
The science fiction imagery is wonderful. The movies look like a zillion covers I’ve seen on SF books since the 1950s. These are the future cities and future machines that SF has dreamed of. At last we can see them in movie form.
Marvel humor is wonderful. It undercuts the flamboyant heroics and makes the heroes tolerable. “Superheroes in New York? Give me a break,” a chess player says at the end of The Avengers. It’s Stan Lee, of course, the guy who has given us how many superheroes?
At the moment, I think Loki is key to the overall story. The last time I saw The Avengers, I got the clear impression that he is afraid of the Chitauri, the aliens who are, in effect, his masters. He has cut himself off from family and friends. As much as he desires it, he is not a king or god; and he is alone, except for the aliens he serves. Envy and malice have brought him here.
Loki’s message in The Avengers is despair. The world is a bloody mess. It can’t be fixed. People can’t change themselves. Freedom is impossible. Humanity is only fit to live in a fascist state. He makes this speech over and over throughout the movie.
He reminds me of the two great lies that Margaret Thatcher left us: TINA (There Is No Alternative) and there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families. The first tells us to despair. The world cannot be improved. The second tells us that we are all alone. Communities do not exist, and we cannot make them. This is an insane message. Humans always exist in communities. But it is the neoliberal/capitalist vision of the world.
These are Loki’s messages as well as Thatcher’s.
Loki is wrong. The message of the movies is that there are alternatives to the present world. Change can happen. Hope is possible. Redemption is possible. A better world can be made. Though the corruption continues and the struggle continues. So far we can’t see an end. As Nick Fury says in Avengers: Age of Ultron, "No matter who wins or loses, trouble always comes around.”
The Marvel heroes recognize that they are flawed. They are not fascist supermen, but people who—more or less by accident—have ended up in an extraordinary place and are doing the best they can.
The message of the movies is also that hope is an effort of will. Time after time the Marvel heroes are told to despair, and they don’t. Maybe that’s why I like the movies. We live in difficult times. Global Warming looms. The world is full of wars, many of them begun or encouraged by the so-called civilized powers. We are ruled by a political and economic system that is oppressive, violent, and extremely fragile. Its fragility makes it even more dangerous.
In this situation, hope is difficult and an effort of will. The Marvel movies tell us you may not be able to win a complete victory, but you don’t have to give up. La lucha continua. We can decide not to despair.
There is a wonderful quote in An Easy Thing, a wonderful novel by the Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II. It’s from Sartre. “There is only hope in action.” That could be an epigram for the Marvel universe.
I stopped after I wrote the above and checked the Internet—not for any reason, simply as a distraction. A post I read mentioned John Sayles’s movie Matewan, about a labor struggle in a mining town in the 1920s. Another post mentioned the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, about—among many other things—the Tennessee Valley Authority bringing electricity to the rural south. (I’m reaching a bit here. It’s really about southern folk music and the changing South and maybe The Odyssey, but it does include the TVA.)
I thought about these movies and other movies I have liked, such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso, which tells us war is evil (“I’d rather be a pig than a fascist”) and ordinary working women can build a plane.
Do I think the Marvel movies are as good? I have two answers. One is, no. The other is, it may not be a fair comparison. The Marvel movies are great, hulking, Hollywood machines, like the robots in Pacific Rim. The people who make them are not auteurs. These are not personal statements. As you know if you sit through the credits, they are very much the work of committees. They are escapist fantasies about superhuman people, full of crash and boom and unlikely fighting, meant to entertain the masses.
Does this make them bad? I don’t think so.
Rather than comparing them to movies like Porco Rosso, maybe we should think of them as public art: squares and fountains, parks, public buildings, statues. Often—in America—these are not great works of art. But they make life better. Even an ordinary fountain improves the day. A neighborhood library can provide comfort and learning, even if it isn’t great architecture. The statue of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Rice Park in St. Paul is not good, but I find it oddly charming; and it reminds us that a pretty good writer came from here.
In any case, I like the Marvel movies.