When we look back on the Obama and Trump eras, any honest history is going to assess the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a major feat of American art. I am tempted to say “popular art” there, but I’m pretty sure the difference between popular or mainstream or consumer art and high or fine art is more notional than useful, so let’s leave it. The Avengers movies, and the whole collection of other Marvel films whose stories coexist with them, have made for themselves a vast and lofty forever home in the heads of tens of millions of people here and in other countries. It means something that so many human beings turn their extended attention, all approximately at once, to these common singular experiences again and again — for over a full decade now. These superhero movies make a measurable impact on us. They are a big enough deal to discuss seriously.
Of course, “serious” publications do talk plenty about superhero movies, and some places do it well. But a lot of discussion — of superhero movies and of other works — centers on how good or bad the movies are. And although the question of quality informs maybe every other conversation you’re going to have about a work of art, our media people focus inordinately on how much and why they like or didn’t like something, and on why we might or might not. It’s all in service of helping everybody find something to pay for that will make them happy and, to whatever degree they desire it, comfortable.
I guess what I want to know is: Why do superhero movies make us happy (and, often, comfortable)? What larger traditions do they fit into — in storytelling, in public ritual, in visual art? What do they feed inside so fucking many people? Is it just that they look cool and sound cool and use rhythm and tone to excite and manipulate our senses? But why these trappings, then — the colors and costumes and all the light and dark? I know they came out of the comic books, but we came up with comic books for some reason too.
Some of this stuff, you can find out; I’m sure there is at least one New Yorker essay that addresses at least half the questions above, probably more. But the general public never talks about it. I guess we’re still getting used to talking thoughtfully about food, but I hope sooner or later we can do the same for the other things we put into ourselves.
I only saw Avengers: Infinity War once, but I just adored it, as I adored the two before it. I’m worried that maybe these films, so good at what they do,* deliver sufficient catharsis to rob us of the urge to actually save the world. The real world, which desperately needs saving, I am sorry to say. If they are doing that, I would like to know.
*Even if we know in our hearts they could always be better — which doesn’t really matter, because we also know they can ultimately be only so good. They are about ridiculous power-people doing impossible things in clothing that makes no sense. They by necessity have a limited palette, too.