Preparing for the Endgame: A few Thoughts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe
This Thursday, April 26, 2019, Avengers: Endgame (2019) will premiere and bring with it the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as we know it, marking the final outing for the Avengers in their current makeup. It is by no means the final movie that Marvel will release, as we already have premiere dates and development updates on a number of projects, but it will finish the saga that began when Robert Downey Jr. first stepped into the role of Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008). Endgame is both a direct sequel to Avengers: Infinity War (2018) as well as the culmination of the battle against Thanos (Josh Brolin) that had been teased since the end-credits scene of Marvel’s The Avengers (2012). The cinematic world has never had anything quite like the MCU, and its very existence has sparked innumerable debates about the state of filmmaking and the quality of the genre writ large. It has brought comics to the mainstream for people who had never heard of most of the characters that have now become international phenomena, while also triggering a sort of existential crisis for many who write about movies: what does it mean that these movies are the dominant force in Hollywood today, and should we really take them seriously?
At times, being a fan of the MCU seems to leave me feeling oddly contradictory. As someone who has read and written about a lot of intricate film theory and studied many of history’s most towering cinematic achievements, it feels rather peculiar to have such love for a series of movies about a group of super-human individuals in armour and spandex blowing up cities. There is a prevailing notion that movies which adhere to a level of realism or grounded storytelling offer the most artistic merit, an idea that has long been validated by the Academy Awards and their penchant for rewarding World War II dramas and bio-pics. It’s easy to see an inherent seriousness and importance ascribed to something like Dunkirk (2017) and its focus on real world events with reverberating impacts on life worldwide all while being shot in an intentionally challenging and original visual style. Does it not seem like there’s something fundamentally off about dissecting valorized art filmmaking in one breath and then debating the latest Marvel offering in the other? Some would say yes, but I have more and more found myself in the camp that says no.
What I would argue is that such a decision should not be based on the fact that a movie comes from Marvel, making the blanket decision that anything bearing that seal is unworthy of critical discussion. I will go toe to toe with anyone to argue that Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) should be included in the discussion about great spy thrillers alongside the likes of everything from The Parallax View (1974) to Casino Royale (2006), and you can’t convince me that Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) is less of a polished and precisely-made adventure comedy than Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). On the flip side, I have no problem banishing The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), and Thor: The Dark World (2013) to the dustbin of cinematic history, not because they are Marvel movies, but because they are forgettable movies regardless of their genre. I find it rather irresponsible to form an immovable opinion about a movie based on its genre association as opposed to its merits as a piece of filmmaking.
With twenty-one movies in the MCU so far, there are bound to be misfires as well as successes. The choice to make a generalized decision about all of them because you have a distaste for capes and secret identities is foolish. More and more we live in a world where superhero movies, whether produced by Marvel or any other comic book line, mark important cultural moments and commemorate the times that we live in. No matter your enjoyment of Wonder Woman (2017) or Black Panther (2018), you have to recognize the supreme significance of each of those movies and what it means when a movie so deeply resonates with a time and a place. Movies have always filled an important space in our lives, and there is always great worth in analyzing the pieces of filmmaking that speak to audiences. When you do so, you may like or dislike any film, and that has always been the beauty of the experience. No one can dictate how you respond to something or how you find value in it, but to swear off and degrade an entire genre because you see that genre as lesser simply on principle seems misguided to me. If critics had sworn off westerns in a similar way film students may have suffered the loss of not studying cinematic achievements like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Only time will tell if any of the MCU entries age in a way that has them enter into the guarded pantheon of critical and academic canon, but to dismiss them outright is injudicious. Will the superhero movie go the way of the western and run the genre dry, becoming a rare breed of film to make? Or will it continue on and secure a spot as a time-honored tradition alongside the horror movie and the bio-pic? We cannot know for certain, but in this current climate it’s hard to imagine a day when the superhero movie does not command an audience.
Eleven years after Iron Man ushered in a new era of movie-going by establishing the MCU as the franchise norm, Endgame will be the capstone on a singular achievement. Over those eleven years, I have matured as an academic, a critic, and a fan, and I do not watch the older movies with the same eyes that I did when they premiered; I find flaws in the pacing as well as new joys in the subtleties of performance that a talented ensemble brings to many of the productions. I will walk into Endgame with eleven years of expectation and history with these movies and characters, and will judge it both as a critic and a fan. When I walk out I will no doubt be itching to pick apart all the easter eggs and plot twists with friends and colleagues who also love these movies, and I will also prepare myself to open a blank document and put together a review. I will be both versions of myself at once because you can do both. The call to film criticism is borne out of a love of watching and talking about movies, and to leave that love out of the critical process is to strip the movie-going experience of its fundamental joy. I may not think that Endgame is as well made a movie as Us (2019) or any other release this spring, but I will be making that decision based on Endgame’s own merits. Even if that evaluation reveals the movie isn’t a superior cinematic construction, I may still love it, and that doesn’t undercut my criticism. Believe it or not, you can be both a serious critic and a fan. I’m not picking one side or the other, and I hope you won’t either.