Peace in our time: The superhero and his shadow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

“Ultron thinks we’re monsters, that we’re what’s wrong with the world. This isn’t just about beating him, it’s about whether he’s right.” – Steve Rogers, Avengers: Age of Ultron

By Kristin Mueller-Heaslip

I have a small confession to make. In spite of their extreme popularity, before the past few weeks I had never seen a Marvel movie. Yes, somehow or other I’ve spent the last ten years under a rock, cinematically speaking. So this series seemed like an excellent opportunity to remedy this, as well as probably the only chance I’ll ever get to watch Black Panther in the background at work and get away with it.

The Wakanda Forever salute.

While I have come nowhere close to watching everything (it would take about 11 days straight, apparently), I’ve managed to watch enough to get a sense of the franchise and to begin to think about what it means, not only as a very large-scale work of art, but as a cultural and psychic phenomenon.

The MCU displays the strengths and weaknesses of the modern high-budget entertainment franchise – strong writing, good performances, beautiful production design and special effects, a meticulous attention to canon and continuity, marred by constant confusing action sequences a tendency to kick a solid resolution to the next installment, as a device to keep the audience wanting more and lining up for Avengers 4: Something that sounds bigger than infinity or whatever it is. Overall, it is an incredibly rich, detailed universe, and one I have really enjoyed exploring. And like other 21st-century franchises such as Harry Potter, Star Trek, and Star Wars, it continues to make lots and lots of money for its studio while providing a fertile background for artists and creators to tell stories they care about.

It’s always a good question to ask, why these stories, and why now? How did comic book superheroes go from a dying industry in the early 2000s to a media juggernaut? What is so captivating about these stories anyway? Stories don’t just entertain us; they also tell us what matters to us. What are we afraid of? What do we desire? What anxieties are we carrying, which ones can we acknowledge, and which ones must we deny?

Well, within the MCU there’s a lot going on from an individual psychology perspective, like Loki’s obvious and rather tedious daddy issues – what is more Oedipal than rebelling against and sort of murdering your father so you can impersonate him? Or take Bruce Banner’s extreme case of splitting. He literally refers to himself as Hulk as “the other guy” and hates and fears himself. And let’s not forget the eminently hateable billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Iron Man), with his alcoholism and womanizing and irritating smugness, or Black Widow’s trust issues.

There’s also a lot to consider to psychodynamically. For example, why does New York City get destroyed over and over again? Is it a repetition compulsion, an attempt to re-write 9/11 into a victory? Coming at it from another angle, what effect do you think the horrifically destructive events of the MCU would have on the world economy?, A disastrous one, according to this guy. (That entire blog is great, by the way, highly recommended.) What does Black Panther’s utopian afro-futurism mean for the future of Black cinema? And why can’t the franchise do anything with Black Widow other than stick her in rom com plots and saddle her with infertility?

But maybe we can go a little deeper and see more of what is really going on. Maybe there are some clues in the heroes themselves. Who are the Avengers? Literal gods (Thor); genetically enhanced super soldiers, lost in time (Captain America); tortured scientists who can’t handle their own strength (Hulk); or ordinary people who either have access to superpower-granting technology (Ant Man, Wasp, Falcon, Black Panther) or are so skilled in combat and espionage that they basically have become superheroes (Black Widow, Hawkeye). What do they have in common?

Power.

Thor grasps his hammer, symbol of power and authority.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the endless battle between good and evil takes place mostly between the extremely powerful. Superheroes fight supervillains, destroying whatever needs to be destroyed along the way; the ordinary, non-superpowered citizen doesn’t get much of a look in, unless they happen to be an employee of SHIELD, have the (mis)fortune to hit Thor with their truck in the desert, or are a member of the Wakandan royal family. Not only are ordinary humans outside of these inner circles disempowered, the power structures of our world, formal and informal, are so completely absent in the MCU that whenever they do turn up (the end of Winter Soldier, for example) it’s jarring.

Sitting uncomfortably with this fascination with power, and vesting power in a handful of individuals, is the fact that the age which has seen the return of the superheroes is also the one that has seen the return of fascism and its own fascist heros. And it’s clearly an overriding preoccupation with the films’ creators. Over and over, the Avengers and friends fight against explicitly eliminationist enemies. Like the fascists of our world, Hydra, Ultron, and Thanos believe that only through the destruction of a hated other can a better world be created. But (at least until Infinity War), the heroes always win…until next time.

A middle-aged white man in a cat t-shirt holds his hand in the shape of a triangle and says "Praise be to Thanos".

Just like the MCU can’t stop destroying New York, compelled to replay the trauma of 9/11 until it becomes a victory, it can’t stop creating villains who want to destroy more and more of the world (or the galaxy) in order to improve or save it. As the viewer, you can either identify with the villain (who usually has a decently nuanced perspective and some sympathetic qualities) and cheer on their attempts at death and destruction…or you can covertly identify with them through their shadows, the heros, who cause almost as much harm through their equally good intentions and terrifying powers. Either way you get the thrill of imagining yourself as supremely powerful, of having power over life and death, and to experience all the thrills of death and destruction – indulge your irrational side and feed your death drive – while remaining on the side of the “good guys”.

But I think there’s more here than a simple exercise for the irrationality. If I had to answer the question I raised above, what story can these stories tell us about ourselves – what does the MCU tell us about our defenses, desires and fears – I’d have to say it was this: that we can never truly be good or just; that our attempts to do so will often be just as bad as the thing we are fighting; that all of the things we hate in our enemies are within us already, and no matter how hard we fight we’ll never be able to escape them.

And if you think this is depressing, imagine what the next Avengers movie will be like, considering that (spoiler alert) literally 50% of them are dead…at least until someone gets the Time Stone back from Thanos and undoes all the events of the previous film. Sounds like a fun night at the cinema!

In his prison, a bloodied and disheveled Loki screams in rage.

Next time: gentrifying Twinkies in an age of starvation; fantasies of unlimited pleasure in a world of scarcity.

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