When I was a small boy, Spiderman taught me how to read. He did that for a lot of people my age, those who grew up watching The Electric Company on PBS. At the end of each episode, there’d be a segment where Spidey had a little Spidey adventure, and he was the only performer in the sketch who didn’t speak – instead, comic-style thought balloons appeared over his head, and you had to apply the reading lessons you’d learned that episode in order to follow along.
It’s been pretty much non-stop Marvel Comics characters ever since. That I was never much of a comic book reader hardly mattered – there were Saturday morning cartoons a-plenty. There were coloring books and lunchboxes. There were movies – for most of my early life, fairly dreadful ones, but movies nonetheless. Then the new millennium dawned, and coincidentally or not, the movies started getting good. And then, in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born, a film series now culminating in the number one movie in all of human history – Avengers: Infinity War. You’d think, as somebody who grew up with Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, and all these characters, that I’d be overjoyed right now.
Actually, I’m terrified.
And it’s not just because –
(Okay, here’s the deal. There’s gonna be spoilers in this week’s post. Lots of ‘em. For a whole bunch of movies that every American has practically been required by law to see, so you really should have seen them by now. If you haven’t, go do your patriotic duty. Now. Right now. Because here come the spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
– Spiderman is dead. Disintegrated, turned into space dust whilst being cradled by a despondent Tony Stark, along with half of the heroes we’ve come to know over this past decade's worth of movies. Victims of Thanos and his plan to save a fragile universe by killing exactly one half of the sentient beings gobbling up its finite resources. (Yes, that’s his evil plan. I’m serious. Go watch the movie if you don’t believe me.) I mean, that happened already, in the Infinity Gauntlet comic book story arc which this movie is adapting. We knew it was coming, or at least suspected it – to be surprised would be like be like watching an Agatha Christie adaptation and being surprised by all the murdering.
No, my apprehension goes back a little further, starting with last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, a widely well-received movie that I thoroughly detested (and remember, I like these movies). The very thing most people liked about it – the sense of humor brought to what had been one of the more moribund series in the MCU – was the thing that aggravated me. The flippancy of the tone. It worked fine in the sequences on Sakaar, keeping the gladiatorial sequences light-hearted. The problem is, the flippancy extended to the rest of the movie, which involves such weighty elements as the destruction of all Asgard. (I mean, Ragnarok’s right in the title.) The people of Asgard willingly destroy their home in order to protect the rest of the universe from Hela, and atone for Odin’s various crimes in establishing their home world in the first place. This is heavy, heady stuff – there should be a certain grandeur to it, I feel. But the overall tone of the film seems to make a mockery of it.
Let me put it this way: early on in Thor: Ragnarok, there’s a sequence where Loki has a bunch of actors putting on a terrible play in his honor, and it’s meant to subtly indicate that Asgardian culture has grown so decadent that it deserves to end. To me, the whole movie felt like that sequence; I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a product of a late-stage society that was reveling in its own destruction. Little did I know that in a few months, that late-stage society would be going absolutely bonkers watching its favorite fictional heroes get ripped into shreds, as a happy diversion from the madness going on real life. Was I right? Are the audiences for these movies really that decadent, that nihilistic?
Ah, but wait! you say. In between those movies was Black Panther, perhaps the greatest single movie in this whole series, and one of the most humanistic. A movie which dares to dream of a utopian society. A movie with a hero whose concept of heroism involves more than simply punching the bad guys, but in demonstrating compassion for them. Certainly, if you’re sick of the nihilism of much of our current popular culture, you can find an antidote in Wadanda.
The whole point of Black Panther is that its villain, Erik Killmonger, turns out to be right. Wakanda’s isolation has indeed benefited itself at its neighbors’ expense, with all the real world horrors that entails. (Do I really need to quote Killmonger’s final line? Come on, Black Panther’s still in some theaters, go see it! It’s really good!) T’Challa’s hero’s journey in the movie ultimately involves him realizing his society has been in the wrong, and correcting it. Which is a wonderful message – but it implies that the unjust society that had existed in the first place is indeed coming to an end.
Three movies about the endings of a society. Three movies in which the villain is presented as having valid grievances, as perhaps being right. Heck, in Infinity War, the giant purple genocide enthusiast is explicitly presented as the film’s protagonist.
To me, the thing that resonates about that final apocalypse in Infinity War – resonates on an incredibly disturbing frequency – is how gentle it is. Sure, poor Peter Parker dies in pain, crying out to his mentor, but most of the others barely have the time to notice what’s happening. Hell, look at the expression on Scarlet Witch’s faceat the end, looking on in wonder at her rapidly disspiating body. She’s happy, delighted that her ashes are being borne away on the Wakandan breeze to join her beloved android in the afterlife. (Seriously, if you’re reading this post without having seen these movies, it’s just gonna seem like the weirdest collection of words imaginable.) And even before that, Thanos’ actions reveal a certain gentle whimsy, which you don’t expect in a murderous Grimace clone. He uses the Reality Stone to turn potential dangers into bubbles, for heaven’s sake! Bubbles!
The original 2008 Iron Man, which kicked off this whole wacky universe, is still one of the canniest pieces of wish fulfillment in all of pop culture. Want all those awful terrorists in the world would get what’s coming to them? Would you rather see all those hateful industrialists profiting off the War on Terror get what’s coming to them? Did you simply hope that nice Robert Downey Jr. would clean up his act and get his life together? Iron Man gives you all three at once. And while the subsequent MCU movies have varied in quality, they’ve all been preternaturally adept at intuiting what we as a culture wanted – at figuring out our anxieties, our fears, our aspirations – and translating that into slam-bang pop spectacle.
So, what the hell do these movies say about us? About what we want? About what we’re longing for?
Are we truly longing for death? Do we suspect, on some level, that we deserve it?
Are we so frustrated with the direction of the nation, and the world at large, that we’d like to see it all burn down around us? Are we so fearful of change, that apocalypse is preferable? Do we see the environmental and societal collapses rapidly approaching and wish, rather than make the sacrifices necessary to avoid them, that a 10-foot-tall bejeweled Malthusian extremist might swoop in to make the hard decisions for us?
Don’t get me wrong. These movies, by and large, are good. And I have every confidence that through comic book magic or some other science fiction stratagem, our disintegrated heroes will be reborn to fight another day. (My money’s on Duck Dodger’s re-integration pistol coming into play somehow.) But the real world isn’t as well managed as the MCU.
Like I said, Spiderman taught me how to read. And I’d like to hope that I can do more with that knowledge than simply read my society’s obituary.