America and Marvel, Part IV: Show Business and the Marvel Identity

 

Let us now see how all this emerges from show business. The box office seems to be growing exclusively on the strength of pricier tickets, as fewer people go to the movies. Fewer movies are made every year, counting movies with any kind of broad release — not 4,000 theaters, but say more than 500. The number of studios and the number of sources for stories are also decreasing. In the business, the idea is called intellectual property. In that sense, a minuscule oligarchy sells what a massive democracy wants to buy. The view of America you get at the movies is concentrating, ignoring more and more of the country. So, let us look at what we buy or, rather, buy into, while only really renting.

Today, cinema is dominated by three genres:

  1. Superhero movies.
  2. Animation, mostly about cute animals, often about redeeming villains.
  3. Teenage horrors-with-a-happy-ending, that is, political paranoia.

These are replacements for, respectively, action movies, family movies, and social criticism movies. There are many changes to speak about, so far as society is concerned. The audience for all these stories is getting younger; the knowledge of American society required to follow the movies is itself decreasing. Observations on life in America are constantly replaced by symbols.

Now, about the types of story I mentioned. The shift from action movies to superheroes has meant — although it needn’t have — throwing away moral virtues and blue-collar heroes — and replacing them by super-intellectual oligarchs.

The shift from family movies to animation has completed the tyranny of American children over their parents at the movies. The children are right, the parents wrong, the ones daring, the others guilty. The absence of the social boundaries implicit in a recognizably American milieu — abstracting from community to principle or caricature — has effected the evacuation of parental authority. There is no punishment among cartoons.

Finally, the shift from social criticism to political paranoia inflicted on adolescents has completed the disillusionment of artistic moralism. Post-war America has always had some kind of artistic pretension to shame the audience by showing American injustice. It’s a kind of speaking truth to power; mostly, these were movies made by holier than thou liberals, but they were not all deluded or lacking in worth. Now, however, outrage at injustice has turned into hysteria — disbelief of the reality of reality. If you want to know what Twitter would be if it were a real world — any of these stories where young Americans are torn apart because of monstrous adults — that’s what it would look like. That’s the world of political paranoia. In social terms, it completes the separation between adults and children once thematized in vaguely romantic movies about misfit youth — John Hughes made a bunch of them in the Eighties. Their earnestness and common sense recommend them for understanding the problems with how young people see America today.

The theme throughout is social decay. This is best seen in Disney-Marvel. The moralism of these stories — liberating the young from the old — is always secretly a hope that society will fall apart so that those who can manage can ignore the majority with impunity and without a bad conscience. Excitement about the heroism implicit in technology and its liberating power is not a common-good concern. The complaints involved in these stories, which come down to saying that America isn’t good enough, tend to resolve in the direction of individualism. They do not bind people, but sunder them. The secret wish of upward mobility is to abandon one’s community. Moralism then offers the added advantage of putting the blame on the community. It deserves abandonment. Heroism or achievement is somewhere else — we have to go away to find it — but there is no coming back. An incapacity for love and friendship typical of most of these superheroes is seen as the springboard to achievement. The stories of political paranoia also do their part to complete America’s age segregation — turning youth into victimhood and adulthood into cruelty and exploitation. Of course, I don’t mean that say, America’s Boomers are not giving the Millennials a rotten deal, worse maybe than anything since the Great Depression. That may be true. But political paranoia is not thereby more plausible or reasonable.

I will suggest to you that the abstraction implied in animation means the same thing: Youth is the same as saying there is no past. That’s where freedom starts. I note that these genres never require or offer detailed or deep knowledge of any part of American society. The inability to take what matters to actual lives seriously is very important. All that is replaced by a search for meaning elsewhere. In the case of the superhero movies, two phenomena require attention. One is the belief that the only problems worth considering are scientific. Even evil has to come in the guise of science, like a puzzle with a solution. Tricky, surely, but not mysterious or inscrutable. The doing of scientific heroes, admittedly, but not part of the human heart. An accident, really. You can fix it.

The other is the related fear that monsters are coming upon us. This is where the fascination with evil shows in superhero movies and I fear these stories have no way to deal with that. There are dark passions of the soul that are acted out in story, but not thought through or educated. The ugly truth is that what you see is what you get and we all know it. Nobody goes in all innocence to see yet another American metropolis — usually NYC — destroyed violently, lives treated like mere matter to be robbed of form. The only thing I can reasonably say in defense of these strange spectacles, so strangely acceptable to Americans, is that there is now no alternative. No one dares speak — no one feels responsible to speak to Millennials about what 9/11 meant to America and where they fit in that story.

Disney, therefore, seems to be the future of American entertainment, especially its Marvel division. It is also the best example I can summon of a corporation moving in many different ways toward what the media are actually supposed to achieve: To create a new identity for Americans. People do not merely watch Marvel movies — the stories may not matter much, but what you could call the poetic effect, properly considered, is very important. I happen to have a very low opinion of most Marvel movies, but I have a high opinion of their effectiveness and coherence.

  1. To understand Marvel’s effect on America, we have to put together the money involved in this venture;
  2. The willingness of consumers to sign up, in their hearts, years in advance;
  3. The introduction of advertising into the endings of movies, which massively undercuts the dramatic effect of a conclusion;
  4. The further marketing of the stories as always leading to some big revelation;
  5. The social phenomenon of celebration, admiration, incessant gossiping and ugly remarks about the competition;
  6. The superlative epithets by which loyalty is pledged in the guise of expressing pleasure;
  7. And the domination of Disney-Marvel by Iron Man, both economically, thematically, and as a mood. That done, you will see the model of sarcastic broken people turning from human concerns to vaguely paranoid or aspirational — cannot quite tell them apart — tech innovations or discoveries. Monstrous invasions perpetually get in the way of humanity or introspection. One begins to suspect that these nightmares are self-inflicted — that they are the self trying to dramatize and moralize the failure of acting like a human being should. This is the idealization of individualism.

I have recently had occasion to write on the new Spider-man movie, which shows that young Americans finally have found the surrogate father they looked for in Barack Obama. It turns out, it’s a sexier, wittier version of Steve Jobs, ultimately. That’s who gives you your gadgets — your superpowers. That’s who gives you your costume — your identity. That’s who gives you access to the few people who matter. Being a fanboy is now morally approved by the superheroes themselves! That movie, of course, fails to give Spider-man his old origin story — instead, you get the origin story that fits with loyalty to this particular corporation.

This may surprise you, but it shouldn’t. As the various institutions of America lose their reality, their legitimacy, their efficacy, or the respect of the public — Americans are turning more toward corporations to learn who they are by what powers they can wield. Americans are increasingly tied together by networks rather than other things. There is a relationship between evacuating reality from the lives of Americans and their moving toward fantasies to search for solutions, descriptions of the problem or ways to make it worse.

Corporations are reassuringly real, thriving, and ordered. They can require loyalty and reward patience or moral investment. What else has a future in America? What long-term projects are there? As people get lonelier and feel more pushed around, what common experiences do Americans have to compete with the opening weekend of a blockbuster? Or putting a new gadget on sale! That’s the future and it’s real!

That’s power, and it’s at your command. Secretly, it ties you up to everybody else and feeds your desire to be known as who you are — and loved for it. This desperate hope, constantly disappointed, is what drives social media. Everything turned when Americans were separated from anonymity, which is a requirement of adulthood — an internet form of privacy. They were offered ways to put themselves on display and it turned out, that’s what they had always been waiting for. You may not get right with God, but Facebook will offer you a chance to see others and be seen by them not as through a glass darkly. You can be justified by popularity or even celebrity.

I will not go on talking about corporations, because it would take me beyond my subject. But understanding that movies are part of a corporate system of business that depends socially on loyalty and love is essential to understanding the changes in American society. This is just the most obvious example of how corporations create identities people feel comfortable with and excited about — but of course, in the great economy that is America, there are other, stranger examples.

With Marvel, Americans get the breathtaking opportunity of getting in on the ground floor of a new business empire. Most of them will never see a dime for all the dollars they spend, but the intensity of the experience — stretching forward into the future — feels like greatness, and therefore feels great. Americans who like Marvel can be happy in their hatred of DC, too. That’s how real this feels to them — it might as well be a spectator competitive sport. Success in this case can be believed to be its own justification, because everyone believes themselves to be in control of participating in these popular phenomena, crazy as that seems from outside. People feel like they are both witnessing and making something great. They can be part of the majority opinion even as they try to form it. They can be together with everyone else while not feeling too derivative or imitative. I would not find it easy to give you examples of experience of citizenship that feel as real as this to the many millions involved.

A certain part of justice — merit — is involved in the Marvel enterprise at every level. It sells Americans the same illusion Silicon Valley does. To the many who are not plagued by disruptive ambitions, it gives them novelty and the vague reassurance that technological progress is happening. They feel they deserve better than they have, but do not want to bring the moment to its crisis. This reassurance suffices to make people feel good about America. To the few who are feverish with some kind of ambition, these enterprises give the illusion that they can earn their success and win their freedom from your fellow Americans — who just don’t value them as they should! Moving apart from everyone else feels like an adventure — it is attaining a certain superiority. New gods or at least demigod heroes are the idols here, forged and fashioned by science. I cannot stress enough that this view of America, in many ways tacitly accepted, is all about separating the productive, who will make their future, from most people, who don’t even deserve mention: cinematically, they’re treated like an admiring audience or collateral damage. This is the common understanding of progress by technology now and it is deeply shameful. There is no honest public discussion of it, although among people who talk politics, it is not infrequently discussed. Most of the country is behind the news, and behind the times. So far as I know, nobody has taken it upon himself to come up with any public discourse to persuade Americans to stand up for their dignity. That would be a reflection on American society for the benefit of the public; we know how badly it is needed primarily by how badly we lack it, which is to say that it’s difficult even to imagine it.

So far, I have talked about what everyone can see on screen. But a man of sense should also concern himself with what is missing from a picture. To speak briefly, superhero stories in this sense speak to the catastrophe of manliness and, with it, the dying away of friendship between men in America. Consider that at the same time that the dark fantasies of manliness of America’s nerds became the biggest box office draw and the only future for the industry — the typically manly business of agonizing over the end of the world began to be dominated by doe-eyed girls. Americans can hardly enjoy conspiracy thinking and political paranoia without involving underage girls. This fails to say anything worthwhile about being a woman in America while invading the last precinct of manliness.

This is Part IV of a five-part series. You can find Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here; Part V will be published tomorrow.

There are 47 comments.

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  1. RyanFalcone Member
    RyanFalcone
    @RyanFalcone

    I like westerns.

    • #1
  2. Brian Watt Member
    Brian Watt
    @BrianWatt

    RyanFalcone (View Comment):
    I like westerns.

    Pithy.

    • #2
  3. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    RyanFalcone (View Comment):
    I like westerns.

    Good man.

    • #3
  4. RyanFalcone Member
    RyanFalcone
    @RyanFalcone

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    RyanFalcone (View Comment):
    I like westerns.

    Good man.

    I figured that you would appreciate it. Great series. Thanks for sharing it.

    • #4
  5. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    RyanFalcone (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    RyanFalcone (View Comment):
    I like westerns.

    Good man.

    I figured that you would appreciate it. Great series. Thanks for sharing it.

    My pleasure!

    • #5
  6. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    I have not forgotten to chime in.  I will get to this when I attend to some personal and professional responsibilities.

    But thank you for posting this one too.

    • #6
  7. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Whole series is coming up, including part 5 just now, courtesy of @exjon.

    & of course I enjoy the thought that you’re getting what you asked for, good & hard, but I don’t want to make you eat your veggies! Good luck with the personal & the professional stuff!

    • #7
  8. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Normal work and family obligations.  We could honestly have spent several days on each post.  But there is life outside the Internet too.

    • #8
  9. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):
    Normal work and family obligations. We could honestly have spent several days on each post. But there is life outside the Internet too.

    Thank goodness, though there’s not much left these days! We now have virtual fantasies to replace real fantasies. It’s getting tricky.

     

    • #9
  10. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Titus Techera: liberating the young from the old

    But this theme is not distinctive to Marvel.  In politics, it goes back to the American Revolution with the Old World vs. the New World.  In literature, back to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

    Might it be a function of the closing of the frontier?  The young go west and build in the frontier.  Today we have no frontier.  We literally have to rebuild on top of where the old once stood because there is no other space.

    • #10
  11. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):

    Titus Techera: liberating the young from the old

    But this theme is not distinctive to Marvel. In politics, it goes back to the American Revolution with the Old World vs. the New World. In literature, back to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

    Might it be a function of the closing of the frontier? The young go west and build in the frontier. Today we have no frontier. We literally have to rebuild on top of where the old once stood because there is no other space.

    You may be on to something with Mark Twain.

    You’re certainly on to something with the consequences of the closing of the frontier. How can Americans, if they want what their forebears wanted, live ultimately very different lives? If the passions of the heart are what they were–Americans are nowhere near as civilized as they like to believe! This is tricky stuff…

    On the other hand, there is a matter as old democracy. The original form of comedy was political–I mean Aristophanes. But if you look in the next century to Menander & the new Attic New Comedy, it’s already erotic comedy. The young v. the old, love v. law, fun v. frowning.

    • #11
  12. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Titus Techera: And the domination of Disney-Marvel by Iron Man, both economically, thematically, and as a mood. That done, you will see the model of sarcastic broken people turning from human concerns to vaguely paranoid or aspirational — cannot quite tell them apart — tech innovations or discoveries. Monstrous invasions perpetually get in the way of humanity or introspection. One begins to suspect that these nightmares are self-inflicted — that they are the self trying to dramatize and moralize the failure of acting like a human being should. This is the idealization of individualism.

    1. Could you flesh this out a little more?  It is very intellectually compressed.  If you have examples from the movies, that might help me out.
    2. Are the Marvel Disney movies different from other Marvel movies?  For example, Fox has Marvel’s X-Men.  In addition, Sony had two prior series of Spider-Man movies?  By tradition, Marvel characters had
    3. Did the students ask as many questions as I have?
    • #12
  13. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Marvel operates in two modes. There’s the Disney movies, starting with 2008’s Iron man. Then there’s the Netflix-Marvel TV shows. The one is dominated by Iron man. The other has no coherence. They’re both very polished.

    But you’re right that the world wasn’t always thus. Disney-Marvel movies before IM included a few busts–remember the two Hulk movies in the aughts, one made by the impressive Taiwanese director Ang Lee!

    There were other TV series, like 2006’s Blade, which had a trilogy of successful movies to draw on, as well as David Goyer doing writing, but was nevertheless terrible.

    Then there were the X:Men movies, but that’s Fox, as you said. I don’t know what direction they’re moving in, but they were nothing like the Marvel movies since IM–not stylistically, not from a business point of view, not thematically, either. They’re fairly successful, but don’t seem to have either much of a future or much potential. –Fox also owns the Fantastic 4 & Silver Surfer, & utterly failed to make anything worthwhile of it.

    Finally, there’s Spider-Man, a Sony property, massively successful 15 years ago, but only marginally profitable 3 years ago, in the post-Marvel-IM era. That’s come together with Marvel in 2017, reducing the little diversity of Marvel there was.

    This is all by way of laying out the landscape. The inflection point is Kevin Feige producing the first IM. Stuff that had been chaotic & not infrequently failed to produce money & sequels was replaced by a long-term plan dominated by IM.

     

    • #13
  14. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    As for my Iron man thesis of broken people & their sarcasm, I can point you to a couple of essays–on the recent Spider-man, on the second Guardians of the Galaxy, & on Deadpool (which is the extreme case, being a Fox R-rated product, but most revealing for its popularity with kids & unprecedented vulgarity). My book on Marvel, if I can sell anyone on my idea, is about the promotion of orphanhood-

    • #14
  15. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Marvel operates in two modes. There’s the Disney movies, starting with 2008’s Iron man. Then there’s the Netflix-Marvel TV shows. The one is dominated by Iron man. The other has no coherence. They’re both very polished.

    But you’re right that the world wasn’t always thus. Disney-Marvel movies before IM included a few busts–remember the two Hulk movies in the aughts, one made by the impressive Taiwanese director Ang Lee!

    There were other TV series, like 2006’s Blade, which had a trilogy of successful movies to draw on, as well as David Goyer doing writing, but was nevertheless terrible.

    Then there were the X:Men movies, but that’s Fox, as you said. I don’t know what direction they’re moving in, but they were nothing like the Marvel movies since IM–not stylistically, not from a business point of view, not thematically, either. They’re fairly successful, but don’t seem to have either much of a future or much potential. –Fox also owns the Fantastic 4 & Silver Surfer, & utterly failed to make anything worthwhile of it.

    Finally, there’s Spider-Man, a Sony property, massively successful 15 years ago, but only marginally profitable 3 years ago, in the post-Marvel-IM era. That’s come together with Marvel in 2017, reducing the little diversity of Marvel there was.

    This is all by way of laying out the landscape. The inflection point is Kevin Feige producing the first IM. Stuff that had been chaotic & not infrequently failed to produce money & sequels was replaced by a long-term plan dominated by IM.

    Marvel utterly failed to make anything of the Silver Surer when it was still only a comic book. I waited and waited for them to seriously develop that character and nothing happened.

    • #15
  16. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Yeah. You needed a kind of guy with American wanderlust & an English major from the old days, who really knew his way around Shakespeare, not to say Milton! Probably hard to pull off!

    • #16
  17. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Tough character to develop (I mean the original; I don’t know the followup version).  God-like powers, completely unrelatable.  Superman could get away with that because he grew up in Kansas, he was practically human.

    • #17
  18. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    He has one thing in common with Superman: Massive loss, but experienced directly–loss of his planet.

    • #18
  19. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Then there were the X:Men movies, but that’s Fox, as you said. I don’t know what direction they’re moving in, but they were nothing like the Marvel movies since IM–not stylistically, not from a business point of view, not thematically, either. They’re fairly successful, but don’t seem to have either much of a future or much potential.

    I would imagine that you would like Logan, the last of the Wolverine movies.  It’s very different from anything in the series.  I won’t be too presumptuous.

    • #19
  20. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    As for my Iron man thesis of broken people & their sarcasm, I can point you to a couple of essays–on the recent Spider-man, on the second Guardians of the Galaxy, & on Deadpool (which is the extreme case, being a Fox R-rated product, but most revealing for its popularity with kids & unprecedented vulgarity). My book on Marvel, if I can sell anyone on my idea, is about the promotion of orphanhood-

    I will read those piece.  It would be surprised if I come back without more questions.

    • #20
  21. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Then there were the X:Men movies, but that’s Fox, as you said. I don’t know what direction they’re moving in, but they were nothing like the Marvel movies since IM–not stylistically, not from a business point of view, not thematically, either. They’re fairly successful, but don’t seem to have either much of a future or much potential.

    I would imagine that you would like Logan, the last of the Wolverine movies. It’s very different from anything in the series. I won’t be too presumptuous.

    I’ve seen it. I’m not a fan. I think it made a great theme of fatherhood. Should have been all the movie… The evil America of the future does not persuade me–exploiting colored people South of the border, who can only survive in Canada. It takes Americans to cook up that sort of thing.

    But I don’t think that’s the future of the franchise-

    • #21
  22. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    As for my Iron man thesis of broken people & their sarcasm, I can point you to a couple of essays–on the recent Spider-man, on the second Guardians of the Galaxy, & on Deadpool (which is the extreme case, being a Fox R-rated product, but most revealing for its popularity with kids & unprecedented vulgarity). My book on Marvel, if I can sell anyone on my idea, is about the promotion of orphanhood-

    I will read those piece. It would be surprised if I come back without more questions.

    I’m in town all week–try the veal!

    • #22
  23. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    One hallmark of Marvel generally is that the heroes are always in conflict with each other.  It is my understanding that this begins in the comics with the Fantastic Four always squabbling.

    In the X-Men movies, there is always tension between Wolverine and the other members, though he seems to come back to the fold.  He is often most compelling when he is protecting children.

    • #23
  24. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    What would be the most essential difference between a figure like Iron Man and Achilles from the Iliad?

    Your explanation of the contrast might make things a bit clearer to me.

    • #24
  25. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):
    What would be the most essential difference between a figure like Iron Man and Achilles from the Iliad?

    Your explanation of the contrast might make things a bit clearer to me.

    Achilles is manly. That’s the whole difference. In the movies, Iron man–the sexy Steve Jobs, surrogate father to America’s confused, conformist Millennials–is a tech oligarch. He’s part of a world designed for cowardice, where America does not have enemies-

    • #25
  26. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    I think it made a great theme of fatherhood. Should have been all the movie…

    That’s what I was thinking of.

    • #26
  27. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    I think it made a great theme of fatherhood. Should have been all the movie…

    That’s what I was thinking of.

    My Deadpool essay includes the explanation: The manufacturing of orphanhood. So also with GotG. Only good father is a dead father-

    • #27
  28. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    He’s part of a world designed for cowardice, where America does not have enemies-

    I can only imagine how you reacted to the scene towards the end of Independence Day when the Israeli and Iraqi pilots were going to fly together.

    • #28
  29. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Achilles is manly. That’s the whole difference.

    What distinguishes manliness from being an overgrown man-child?

    I’m not sure how you would feel about the comparison but there is a difference Brody in Jaws and Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (and which gets more extreme as the series continues.)

    • #29
  30. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    He’s part of a world designed for cowardice, where America does not have enemies-

    I can only imagine how you reacted to the scene towards the end of Independence Day when the Israeli and Iraqi pilots were going to fly together.

    I think that makes perfect sense. It’s an old Reagan remark at the UN–alien attacks would bring mankind together.

    But Iron man used to be Cold Warrior.

    & it’s not just that–IM3 actually introduces the Mandarin, but he’s done over to look like bin Laden–but then it turns out that’s just an elaborate joke!

    I didn’t introduce the problem, you see…

    • #30

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