“Avengers Resemble. . .”: Marvel’s Mega-Series, What the Kids Are(n’t) Reading, and Political Allegory

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Review by Google“>Shawn Stjean

Marvel Studios has achieved something almost frighteningly big with its 21st-century film releases, Avengers: Age of Ultron only the most recent: not merely a franchise, but essentially an ongoing TV-type mega-series, with a cast of hundreds and a monetary value inestimable.  No longer content to re-boot and re-hash origin stories, filmakers can now rely on a continuity that allows story and character arcs to develop over years.  And that grandmaster of the long game, Joss Whedon, as he has done with all the other shows he’s run, has got all the pieces in motion and can pass the baton to whomever shares the vision.

Fans of Buffy and Angel would have to be dim not to recognize Whedon’s trademark setting of the “Big Bad” behind the scenes, scheduled to emerge 2/3 into a “season” as a major threat to the small group of heroes, while discreet episodes detail the rise-and-falls of minor bad guys all witlessly advancing a grand scheme.  Themes are also put into place, some of which resonate indefinitely (see the excellent final season of Angel), and some of which seem abortive or merely fun.  Avengers 2, for example, deploys a consistent but confusing array of Judeo-Christian religious allusions.  Perhaps a Jim Starlin could suss them into something coherent–recall he’s the creator credited with the Thanos/Warlock death-and-resurrection mythology that Whedon has anticipated–so I’ll leave that task to him or others like him. And the Avengers is also a family drama.  More pertinent today would be to trace some political implications of the elements in this latest sequence of films especially.

Students in first-year college English courses become familiar with Jonathan Swift’s method in “A Modest Proposal,” in which he bitterly attacked both the British and Irish gentry, nearly three centuries ago, for their roles in the starvation of the Irish working class.  In outlining a plan requiring the Irish to eat their own children as a solution, Swift employed enough levels of irony to take a four-hour night-class to unpack, and Whedon follows suit.  Keep in mind that the point of political allegory is not only to insulate the social reformer/artist/critic from counterattack by distancing her from the social criticism (“It’s just a kids’ movie,”) but to tell two stories at once: on the literal level, the Marvel Universe contains a host of “enhanced” individuals who struggle with their abilities, each other, and their enemies; on the figurative level, these characters face the moral ambiguities that we all face every day, of living in the most politically and technologically powerful nation on the planet.

Turns out that the small-screen extended narrative structure works well for social criticism, which has always been deplored as “bad art,” going back to ancient Greek tragedy.  A series of interlocked stories allows the social critic/artist to diffuse the attack, both time-wise and target-wise.  Marvel’s favorite theme is government abuse of power, and SHIELD stands in for whatever agency you like to hate, or all combined (FBI, CIA, NSA, ATF, and so on.)  In Whedon’s Firefly, they called it the Alliance.  Character mouthpiece for these attacks has by default become Captain America, a man frozen in ice at the end of WWII and awakening to a world where technology threatens constantly to supplant human values of liberty and justice.  “This isn’t freedom,” he insists to Nick Fury in The Winter Soldier (a subtitle hearkening back to investigations into Vietnam War crimes in which American veterans testified,) referring to SHIELD’s hovering platform that murders “hostiles” from orbit, in a clear nod at the US unmanned drone program.  Cap will complete that unfinished statement in Age of Ultron, as Fury’s helicarrier rises to evacuate the imperiled civilians of a floating city: “This is what SHIELD was meant to be.”

The reform agenda may be as mystifying to some as the religious elements.  Subtle touches like casting Robert Redford (who portrayed Watergate investigative journalist Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men and the betrayed protagonist of Three Days of the Condor, among other anti-establishment vehicles) as the puppetmaster World Councilman, though a neat bit of irony for those in tune, will be lost on the young.  Mark Twain, a virulent social critic in the late 19th century, was deplored by some contemporaries as “selling out” by covering up his artistic reform with low humor.  Above all, these films chronicle action.  And let us never forget that mega-corp Disney pulls the strings, to the tune of billions of dollars.

At times, though, Whedon’s/Marvel’s criticism becomes pointed, as when Ultron himself declares “Men always create what they fear. . .Invaders create Avengers.”  Aside from a cheeky reference to another of Marvel’s super-groups, I can’t help but hear in that the director referencing the unending cycle of violence that has come with America’s involvement in the Middle East.  Though the reference could apply, for all I know, to the destruction of the Alamo–endless revenge cycles are a very old story.   But not a subtle one–nor is the free-fall collapse of a skyscraper visually linked to the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center.

Contrary to Cap, Tony Stark would like to see machines take all work out of human hands, whether it be robotic weapons for the military, or the Avengers themselves: “I see a suit of armor around the entire world,” he announces in Age of Ultron.  Naturally, he’d hold all the codes, because at bottom he’s a fascist who doesn’t believe in deciding by referendum.  Instead, he keeps his own counsel and custody of the tech–which makes him and Nick Fury uneasy allies–and relies on personal charm to persuade Bruce Banner to help him create Ultron (in the future, watch for him to work his seduction on Peter Parker.)  Echoing Neville Chamberlain’s doomed vision of “peace for our time” after his 1938 meeting with Hitler, Stark can’t see his own God Complex, creator of a Frankensteinian metal army in his own image.  Opposing him, temperamentally and verbally, is Steve Rogers, extending his deep misgivings about secret agendas into this episode:

“How can you beat that?” challenges Stark, implying some threats are too imposing to be met with anything less than equally destructive force.

“Together,” affirms Cap.

Stark scoffs openly.  “We’ll lose.”

“Well then, we’ll do that together, too.”

From the audience’s perspective, it’s hard not to align with Cap’s self-reflexive naivete, his belief in democratic principles, and he has the right of it.  If we really do live in a republic, then we can’t relinquish moral decisions to machinery, whether of government bureaucracy or armed soldiers; “Ultron thinks we’re the monsters.  This isn’t just about beating him–it’s about whether he’s right.”

Ultron (Iron Man’s doppelganger) insists we should, as humans, evolve.  Is he right?

After all, we’re willing to let the supposedly better-informed tell us who our enemies are, direct evidence be damned; we’re willing to allow them to kill them for us, a few civilian casualties be damned; we’re even willing to let machines execute the so-called criminals without charge or trial, and our leaders brag out of television screens about it.  Never mind all the thousand little tasks machines daily take out of our hands, so that we may do worse mischief with them, or let them lie idle, or tap endlessly on cell phones.

The trouble with mechanistic thinking is that it can’t account for certain equations.  As Dostoevsky wrote, “2+2=4 is a very fine thing, but sometimes 2+2=5.”  And that’s Humanity for you–illogical, emotional, idealistic, cynical, intuitive–at our best, more than the sum of our parts.  But Stark’s robot AI, as obsessed with building ever-more-powerful anthropomorphic bodies as Iron Man himself with upgrading his armor, can’t see such distinctions.  “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it.  I wonder where he gets that from?”  Yes, abandoning freedom in defense of security–it would be as pointless as eating one’s own children.

Artists like to play disingenuous or directly disavow the political implications of their work, of course–a more famous case being J.R.R. Tolkien denying that The Lord of the Rings was not a re-(pre-?) telling of the nuclear denouement of World War II (his stated defense was that his good guys didn’t use the Ring of Power.)  Joss Whedon, famous for his Whack-a-Mole interview responses, would no doubt evade likewise.  But, in a sense, readers matter more than artists.  The values of Marvel Comics and films still make it through to the kids, however clothed: It’s disastrous to keep secrets from your friends, or to do a bad act in a service of a good ideal;  people can change, albeit painfully; and loving someone sometimes means having to push them off a cliff.

We might anticipate where all this is heading–we’ve witnessed, in spite of a visible concern for civilians in the way, a vast amount of property damage follow in the Avenger’s wake, especially the Hulk’s.  In 2016, the next Captain America fim, entitled Civil War, will likely dramatize the governmental response to this, with Stark and Rogers’ antagonism boiling over: “I don’t trust a man without a dark side.”  “Maybe you just haven’t seen it yet.”  The theft of Wakanda’s vibranium stores (stripmining of natural resources) prepares us for blowback from Wakanda in the upcoming Black Panther film.  I also wonder if the Scarlet Witch’s addition to the cast might bode some shades of House of M and Avengers Disassembled.   Asgard only knows that Marvel has an embarassment of riches in macro-event-mythology, to draw from.

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“If This Be Bechdel!” : Can Girl Germs Kill the Marvel Universe?

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By Shawn Stjean

Alternate reality.  Imagine this: you’re in a movie theater, and the feature film stars 5-25 named women characters, and one male.  You’re a pretty sharp viewer, so it’s not long before you realize the male seems primarily there, in the first hour of run time, to confirm the heterosexuality of the women (he’s the boyfriend of one, but a second makes a suggestive remark to him, and a third checks out his ass–with help from the POV of the panning camera, held by a female as the credits will show, and directed by a female).  So we can all be comfortable knowing our heroes are “normal.”

In the second half, the male gets sent home, while the women go out and accomplish their epic mission.  That’s okay, he can make supper and take care of their motherless child while he waits.  Oh, sorry, I spoke too soon.  The bad guys break in and kidnap him, to use as leverage against the team.

As all this drama unfolds, you glance around to see if the rest of the audience is buying it.  You notice something: like you, 52% of the audience is male.  Yet, this lack of interest by the filmmakers in your gender seems “normal.”  How?  It’s always been that way.

Back onscreen, something odd happens.  Your male character looks as if he’s about to display power somehow: by interrupting, or grabbing a gun, or possibly even out-thinking the bad guys.  Well, he’s quickly de-powered.  How?  Well, it looks as if someone just slapped him across the face and sent him sprawling.  But the real work is done with the word that directly precedes the act: a slur that you’ve heard in dozens of films and never thought much of.  Yet, today, you realize that it comes always at moments when males threaten to display true free agency.  In some other reality, the word is B—H.  Here, it’s unpronounceable.  You first remember hearing it onscreen in 1986, when rare male hero Ripley had to fight the Alien King for custody of his adopted son, Newt, and challenged: “Get away from him, you —–!”

For those familiar with the Bechdel Test *1 for films, you recognize I’m furthering its project of offering an inverted perspective, a (regrettably) ridiculous fantasy to create empathy with female viewers.  No, the test isn’t sophisticated enough to tell a good movie from a bad one, based on gender representation alone.  It wasn’t meant to: it simply points to an area of our culture with a big, gaping hole: why doesn’t the film industry, which creates products for consumption by roughly equal numbers of men and women, fairly represent and employ both?

Let’s tweak the scenario just a bit, and in a more realistic direction.  Let’s say you haven’t come alone to the theater.  Your young child is sitting next to you.  A son, in my alternate reality.  A daughter, in our own.  That matter to you?

It ought to.  You, as an adult, can process a certain level of critical thinking about all this.  He can, too, of course–perhaps more than most adults realize–however, there’s quite a lot of subconscious imitative behavior left in him.  At some level, he’s digesting all this gender inequity as normal.

Which brings me, as a major example, to Marvel Studios.  Not because they do so poorly, but because they do so well.  And because they produce big-budget blockbusters that are suitable and attractive to children.

Here’s a statement most parents would agree with: when you regularly leave your child with Grandma, or Uncle Joe, then in effect Grandma or Uncle Joe are helping you raise your child, for better or worse.  Now, here’s a more controversial statement:  When you leave your child in daycare, then the babysitters there are helping you raise your child.  Does the fact that these providers are not blood-related, or that they accept payment, change the dynamic, from the child’s perspective?  I doubt it.  Finally, try this one: when you sit your child in front of a video game, television, or book, then those media are helping to raise your child.  The stories they tell are as influential, if not more so, than Grandma’s.  Marvel, in all its forms, and like it or not, is helping America raise its children.

Back to our own reality.  Where, to put it succinctly, boys rule.

Here’s a great little moment from Captain America: The Winter Soldier:

Black Widow:  Where did Captain America learn to steal a car?

Cap: Nazi Germany.  And we’re borrowing–take your feet off the dash[board].

And she does.  So, do you think Marvel Studios doesn’t believe it’s influencing kids?  Now, besides that, if we look a little closer at the extended scene, we can see that the woman is bowing to the man’s [superior moral] authority.  The conversation continues as the Widow defends the notion of secrecy and deception as a survival mechanism, and Cap argues that friendship and honesty are what’s needed.  She seems to win the local debate: “You might be in the wrong business, Rogers.”  But he’s able to turn that line back on her, later, and in fact thematically the whole film endorses his point of view: SHIELD’s addiction to stealth technology, and secrecy in general, has brought the world to the brink of Armageddon by genocide.  So at both the subtextual and metatextual levels, we’re learning that, as much as males may screw things up, females can help, but ultimate freedom and justice must be brought about by males (by extension, this argument would also carry a racial dimension, since both the Falcon, Cap’s sidekick, and Nick Fury, his wrongheaded boss, are black).  An eight-year-old is not too young to hear and see this message.  It’s not really a more difficult message to decode than the perennial one (that violence is the proper way to solve problems,) that so many Hollywood films endorse.  Because, in his mind, somewhere, the question is raised: what is this story finally telling me?

Studio Head Kevin Feige, *2 in light of most-recent successes of Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy (both of which have women characters in important roles,) lately finds Marvel functioning as a lightning-rod for renewed  demand for gender equity in our culture.*3  Because you have to understand something very clearly: movies, music, TV programs and sports, even grafitti, may all seem like “make-believe,” but: THEY MIRROR REALITY.  It may be a distorting, funhouse mirror, true.  But the fundamental facts remain the same.  We see gender inequity in films because that’s what we perceive as we walk through the world.  What we also perceive is that women (like all human beings, after all) have unlimited, heroic potential.  But, for all but a few, extra difficulties must be faced in realizing that potential.

You don’t have to be a rabid feminist to see how problematic this is.   There are practical consequences.  No women leads, no women directors: Where will our young women get their role models from?  From greedy racists, classists, and sexists, or from people who not only pay lip service to, but actually live as if they acknowledge human rights?  I personally grew up reading Marvel Comics, and they had a profound effect on who I am today, no doubt of that.  And if Marvel had been making more films then, I certainly would have been influenced by them.  Eventually, I taught an upper level film studies course at the university level called Women and Film.  So let’s just say, with regard to gender politics, my views have come a long way in forty years.

One dimension that Marvel characters seem to possess, more than in many other mythologies (I would include Tolkien, Twilight, and DC Comics*4  in that) is that both the heroes and villains, however deeply flawed, are on a slow trajectory of growth, or decay–just like people we know.  No, I don’t dress in primary colors–but I do try to live more like Captain America than Dr. Doom.

As “pop” culture–with all its connotations of popcorn, soda pop, and instant-microwave gratification–slowly and inevitably replaces the (traditionally patriarchal) high culture of reading, drama, museums, galleries, and the symphony, the “pop” still seems to signify rule by the father.  But if we lose all those nutrients, then our popcorn better get sprinkled with some protein powder.  Actually, infused.  Like Marvel Gummie vitamins.

The Modern Marvel Age, as Stan Lee sometimes referred to it, was built upon some important precepts, like:  WITH GREAT POWER, COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY.  As Spider-Man himself often finds, that’s a tremendously challenging ethical code to live up to.  On TV, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD already has racial and gender diversity well-covered.  The next step is Hollywood:  With its infestation of suits, bean counters, and formulaic, often exploitative junk.  Does Marvel still have the courage to grow and take real risks (they used to–remember Blade, a movie made before vampires got popular again, with a black male lead)?   Can the people who hold custody of this mythology of heroes, that both reflects and helps create our culture, do any less than the fictional characters whose adventures they chronicle?  The better they do, the better they have to do.  Or is it really all just “stories?”

*1  For non-geeks, my title alludes to Fantastic Four #49, “If This Be Doomsday!”  The Bechdel Test requires that a film contain 1) two women characters, who 2) talk to each other, 3) about some other topic than a man.  One can readily imagine that the majority of Hollywood films fail this test, often without progressing beyond the first requirement.  However, the test is not really meant to be used as deductive reasoning, which explains why I’ve inductively inverted it in this essay.  Rather, it’s really about raising our consciousnesses about a vital social issue, not for use as a litmus test for whether one should actually judge quality by limited, demographic criteria.

*2 Kevin Feige’s interview: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=54522

*3 For an example on the critical backlash Marvel is facing, try this at Slashfilm: http://www.slashfilm.com/kevin-feige-marvel-female-superhero-movie/  Essentially, many fans want Marvel Studios to quit stalling projects with women leads and directors, but, as always, money seems to be the deciding factor.  What will people pay to see?

*4 Last year, I deconstructed the recent Batman franchise to expose its low-level economic class biases: https://clothosloom.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/the-con-of-the-coin-shouldnt-batman-go-independent/  Perhaps, for DC fans, more hope will come in the form of  Wonder Woman’s character–who, in the comics at least, in recent years has become a lethal threat to patriarchy.

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Marvel’s Mega-Events—Stan, Stop the Madness!

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I’ve been reading comics for 40 years. No, they didn’t call them “graphic novels” then, in some attempt to lend them the air of legitimacy.  I well remember the first “real” graphic novel: The Death of Captain Marvel. Whoa—a super-hero dying of cancer, with the cover image an homage to Michelangelo’s sculpture, Pietà, the Dying Christ (religious allegory a specialty Jim Starlin’s, inherited from his Adam Warlock forbears)—that was a next-level event.  It signaled a demand for literacy among the next generation of readers—kids who were growing up with the challenging and allusive lyrics of Springsteen, Rush, and Pink Floyd, and watching Star Trek in syndication—those same kids who are now grown up, many still reading.

At age 15, I could barely afford to buy this deluxe-format beast, of course, at the $5.95 cover price.  They were 15 cents when I began as a kindergartner, just up from 12 cents, and I scraped the money together for my first, personal issues by tipping up the clothes-dryer, and by plunging my little paw between the bench seats of the family sedan, and later shoveling snow for the neighbors.

Take it from me, Civil War (2006-07—seven brief issues, but it stretched to every mag Marvel published at the time, dozens of books) was the best thing Marvel has produced since the bronze age.  If you haven’t read it yet, I envy you the experience—it saved comics for me.   It could have been just another 1980s “Secret War”—again, I’m dating myself.  And Secret War was not bad, for its time, but it wasn’t written for adults —not really.  The coven of creators behind Civil War brought us something far more epic, far more mature and thoughtful, than just two big groups of costumed adventurers rumbling against each other.  I distinctly recall, aside from the death of Captain America, which functioned as an epilogue, several moments in particular: Sue Storm/Richards (The Invisible Woman) telling her husband, Reed (Mr.Fantastic): “I’ve never been so disappointed in you.”  Peter Parker joining the wrong side and embracing technology over intuition, because he believed he was doing the right thing.  Captain America clarifying for us that a real patriot must always be ready to defend his country against its government.  Family member against family member, and every worthwhile character trait that decades of creative teams made part of the Marvel mythology, drawn upon, epitomized by those moment of conflict.

Well, they couldn’t leave well enough alone.  A succession of crossover mega-events has followed, in a blatant attempt to sell overpriced magazines (the ridiculous four-dollar cover price is a subject for another lament.)   World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, Fear Itself, Avengers vs. X-Men, just to name the biggies.  No.  These things should come once per decade, at most—like they say in the mafia, “every once in awhile, to get rid of the bad blood.”  It takes away from the really fine moments in them to dilute the Marvel Universe this way.  An epic is more than the running time of the movie or the number of pages between the covers–it’s what’s at stake.  And I’m not talking about the destruction of the Earth by Kree and Skrulls, either–I’m talking about what our youngsters–the living heroes of tomorrow, learn from the experience.

Now they’re rebooting—I think—New Avengers.  Again.  Seriously.  The New-new-new Avengers.  What used to be Marvel’s best book, but, like some over-circulated photocopy,  more diffuse and unclear with each new iteration.  And how young does a kid need to be before he’ll fall for the old “I have issue #1!” scam, anymore?  Then, you’re taking candy from babies.

In the final analysis, every real hero is an individual, not part of some mob.  Read the immortal Amazing Spider-Man #33.  Stan Lee is a hero of mine—I’ve written about him elsewhere.   Back when he was a writer and leader, and not a media mogul doing fun film-cameos and leaving the important decisions to bean-counters, he was one of those human beings with what folks living through the ‘60s and ‘70s called soul.  He could actually inspire brand-loyalty in children, ones sensing the tepidness of the competition across town, great as some of their characters might be.  But, as has been said of many heroes in many tales: where is he now?  What soul gem can resurrect him?

Excelsior???

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