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Is Marvel Killing the Movies?

A roundtable discussion of "Avengers: Infinity War," the 19th installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Marvel Studios

Avengers: Infinity War Hulk-smashed the domestic box office record for an opening weekend, bringing in nearly $260 million. The world-destroying growth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—which is now at 19 movies and counting—has led to near-existential questions of what comic books have done to Hollywood. Staff writers Jeet Heer, Alex Shephard, and Josephine Livingstone sat down to discuss the franchise model, RAW, and the post-narrative world. This conversation is, of course, full of spoilers:

Jeet Heer: The new Avengers movie has re-opened the persistent debate—or wound—about the comic book–ification of the movie industry. James Cameron spoke for many in Hollywood when he complained about “Avengers fatigue”—never mind that Cameron is planning to do at least three Avatar sequels. Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese have made the same complaint—although, again, the fact that Scorsese is producing a Joker movie calls to mind the adage, “Physician, heal thyself.”

So are there too many comic book movies?

For myself, I’ll answer by saying there is a distinction between comic books and superheroes. This is actually my second experience with this debate. As a young comics fan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I loved all sorts of cartoons—comic strips, New Yorker cartoons, underground comics, and, yes, superhero comics. There was a big debate at the time in places like The Comics Journal about the way superheroes had come to dominate the field. After all, in the 1950s there were all sorts of genres in comic books: horror, funny animals, westerns, romance. But the late 1970s, all were in poor health except superhero titles. A critic in The Comics Journal hailed RAW, an art journal edited by Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman, by saying it was the only thing standing between us and “an eternity of the Incredible Hulk.”

Now what was true of comics is becoming true of movies. Are we facing an eternity of the Incredible Hulk?

Alex Shephard: For a long time, I (like many) waited with bated breath for Marvel fatigue to set in. But after the success of Ant Man and Dr. Strange—and certainly after the mega-success of Avengers: Infinity War—I’ve resigned myself to the Marvel Cinematic Universe controlling Hollywood for the foreseeable future.

Or at least, I think I have. With Infinity War, it finally feels like like we’re moving toward an ending for the franchise. In Ben Fritz’s excellent book about the evolution of Hollywood studios, which have become more focused on franchises (as well as the merchandise and theme park money that franchises bring with them), he argues that these movies represent serialized television more than they do actually movies. (This is a point that A.O. Scott makes in his review of Infinity War in The New York Times.) But in fact these movies are evolving to become more like comic books. When the sequel to Infinity War drops next year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will test its audience mightily, both by bringing back several characters from the dead, comic book–style, and recasting others.

The decision to kill off a number of superheroes was a wise one, given how overcrowded things have gotten at Marvel. Infinity War felt more like an All-Star Game than, say, a championship.

Josephine Livingstone: When I went to see the movie yesterday, I was struck by the trailers. They were also all for franchise movies: Oceans 8, the grammatically aberrant Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. This new crop of “series” movies speaks to the longstanding complaint that Marvel’s endless production line is hurting Hollywood’s ability to make good, big films by resting on old laurels. The comics universes are easier targets for that argument, but it’s not just them.

But I cannot see where Marvel will go next. I can imagine all sorts of resurrections and plot machinations, but structurally it was a totally maxed-out film. From the first scene to the last, Avengers: Infinity War felt like 2 hours and 40 minutes of climactic scenes, sutured together. There’s no respite. I thought I’d fall asleep in the screening because it was so long, but instead I left feeling like my brain had been cranked up to high alert and then left running.

There is a plot, but a very simple one, and its only real function is to let the movie pivot, then pivot again, between fights in Edinburgh; Wakanda; New York; space. The Edinburgh setting might have been my favorite, if only because Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) delivers a sombre line underneath a shop window sign that reads “We will deep fry your kebab.”

You’re right, Alex, that it felt like an All-Star Game. But how do you restart a franchise once its audience is used to the ice cream-for-breakfast feel of a movie like this? Marvel has deep-fried its kebab with this film, and I cannot imagine an effective next move, in filmmaking terms.

Heer: I think what both of you are getting at is the post-narrative nature of the Marvel movies (and many of the other franchises). In a one-and-done movie, you can have a traditional beginning-middle-end plot. Or shift the narrative around, Pulp Fiction–style. But still, you have a contained story. A franchise is much more like a roman-fleuve or a soap opera, with characters showing up, dying, coming back to life, endlessly. 

Stan Lee, the huckster/maestro who co-created the Marvel Universe with Jack Kirby, likes to say that what Marvel sold was “the illusion of change.” That’s to say, the comic books offered serialized stories where it looked like the characters were going through life-changing crises every month but somehow always reverted to the same spot. I’ve always been dissatisfied with “the illusion of change” because it robbed the stories of the finality of traditional narratives: the finality that comes with making irrevocable changes that lead to love or death.

In fact, the Marvel movies have now gone beyond soap opera into another post-narrative form that is even more resistant to finality of life: video games. “INFINITY WAR was structured like a video game with differently themed boss battles to defeat,” Arthur Chu noted on Twitter. “Thanos is the player character who accumulates new powers as he progresses, and has to send his party members on the missions he can’t do himself.”

I don’t want to sound like an old stodgy codger (even though I am an old stodgy codger) but it seems to me that this lack of narrative finality really hampers the genre. Like video games they can be stimulating and exciting, but only at the expense of denying the emotional engagement other forms of art offer. (The post-narrative video-game aspect of these movies might be why critics like Scott and Richard Brody are cool to them. Which in turns feeds into the status anxiety of superhero movie fans who aren’t content by the fact that their genre dominates global cinema; they also want The New York Times and The New Yorker to bend the knee).  

Livingstone: Are you signaling, Jeet, the beginning of a structurally postmodern turn in comic books movies? Video games are certainly one reading for the new Marvel world. But your word “post-narrative” gives me some hope. This is something the novel went through many decades ago. And I’m glad it did ...

Heer: I do think that these franchise movies (and the superhero comics they often draw from) are merging with video games. And that’s not a wholly bad thing: There are exciting experimental possibilities in a post-narrative world. If the end result is we get big-tent movies that play with storytelling in the manner of Robert Coover or Lydia Davis, so much the better. But that possibility is still hypothetical. What we have in most Marvel movies is not just a video game but a bad video game: one that is overstuffed and chaotic.

Shephard: The video game analogy is a good one, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough for me. They’re merging with video games and television and toys and theme park rides and branded content—I’m naive, but I was still surprised to see the Lexus from the Black Panther Lexus commercials show up in Black Panther—to form a knotty meta-narrative that ultimately signifies nothing (except maybe corporate profits). But, even with the shock ending of Infinity War, the tone of these movies has always been broad and good-natured, in contrast, for instance, to the sheer oppressiveness of DC’s botched attempts at cinematic universes. They’re the ideal vehicles to just keep layering on other profitable narratives.

Jeet’s point about “emotional engagement” is a really good one, though. To me, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are the only ones that really have that (though that may be because I am weirdly primed to cry at yacht rock). I always leave Avengers movies scratching my head about stakes. Big-budget movies usually are all about them—an asteroid hurtling to earth, a group of velociraptors that could wipe out humanity, fathers and sons, etc. But I never felt any real sense of urgency in Infinity War. Or much else, for that matter.

Livingstone: I had the same questions about what I was meant to feel, Alex. But in the end I think I felt what the movie wanted me to: overwhelmed. The action of Infinity War keeps it all at such a high pitch that the movie obliterates its own emotional stakes. I think it was intended to engender one long sharp intake of breath.

We are three different movie-goers, and we each seem to have come away with a similar feeling of bewilderment from this film. Perhaps it’s the shock of witnessing something like an ending to this long, long franchise. As Alex said, it’s not an ending for the market: layers will keep layering, toys will keep being sold. But for the one-and-done Marvel paradigm—which we just saw done to total perfection in Black Panther—something was killed off in Infinity War.