Spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor

Friday, July 13th, 2018

I haven’t kept up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I found Aaron Bady’s analysis surprisingly deep:

The MCU cycle began when Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were created in 2008, in the last year of Bush’s presidency. They are set against the backdrop of wars—in Iraq, in Afghanistan—that never seemed to end, and as such, are fables about the military industrial complex, artifacts from an era when people were still talking about “blowback,” when we still remembered (or cared) that the CIA had helped to create the conditions for Al Qaeda, and when “end the war” was a thing people promised, said, and demanded. To watch them now is to remember a time when we could still remember a time before we were at war, forever, with terror.

And so, those very first movies gave us Iron Man’s discovery that he is his own worst enemy, that Bruce Banner’s experiments have created a monster: himself. They are stories that take the salience of these stories for granted. Like Christopher Nolan Batman movies, which came to us around the same time, they are stories that ask a single, basic question: what if we are the enemy we’ve been searching for?

Since the answer, unavoidably, is yes, the next phase gave us The Avengers: with Thor and Captain America in 2011—leading up to The Avengers in 2012—the movies started to tell a larger story, about building a team of super-heroes out of this disparate set of “special” individuals; as fucked up as they all were, separately, maybe, together, they could be something… more? These are still stories in which the enemy we are searching for might turn out to be us, of course; they are still movies where anxiety about the self gets exorcized by violent combat with a double, just as Iron Man fought an even more iron man and The Incredible Hulk fought a bigger, more incredible hulk. And they are right to be anxious! What is Nazi-fighter Captain America, after all, but a genetically-modified Aryan super soldier? What is Thor’s quest to be “worthy” if not a conquering despot’s desire to justify the unjustifiable, to insist that he rules for some reason other than force? On some level, these movies always know that their protagonists are hypocrites, that the things they are fighting are basically themselves. S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. H.Y.D.R.A… what really is the difference?

But they are also stories in which “we” comes to take an interesting centrality, where the individual might be saved by the group, by friends, by family, by work. What if—in the course of human events—we the people could come together and form a union of super-special people? What if together we can become more than the sum of our individuality?

Alas! It only lasts as long as the alien invasion, and by the time we eat the shawarma, there’s not much to talk about. In Iron Man 3 (2013), we learn that terrorism really is just the MIC tail wagging the democratic dog; in Thor: The Dark World (2013), we learn that the Asgardians really are just conquering bastards; in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) we learn that S.H.I.E.L.D. and H.Y.D.R.A. actually are the same thing; in Age of Ultron (2015), we learn that keeping the peace with drone armies is a truly terrible idea, and it’s the only thing that Tony can think of; it’s the only thing ANYONE can think of. By the time of Civil War (2016), we’ve learned that “Us” is an unstable combination, that blowback is still real, and that no one really transcends their deep flaws. Even the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies tell a version of this story: if the first (2014) is about finding a new family, the second (2017) will be about remembering just how toxic family can be, and how long-lasting its wounds are.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, as the Avengers broke up and as the movies started to proliferate beyond narrative control—Ant-Man? Doctor Strange? Black Panther?—the people making them started to think about the next story they would tell. And so, it turned out that in the margins of these stories of American Empire—always the subtext for the original Avengers—they had begun planting the seeds for a different story, particularly in the post-credit sequences; there were hints and rumors and whispers of the larger story that was already taking place just off-screen, that had been from the beginning, a complex and nuanced and revelatory story—the very Grandest of Grand Narratives—about how a dude named Thanos was trying to acquire the six Infinity Stones so he could blow up the universe. This would be their big idea, their magnum opus, their greatest and most consequential story.

[...]

To pick a few random examples: Thor: Ragnarok was about emigrants fleeing a lost home, about how you carry home with you wherever you go. Spider-Man: Homecoming was about choosing not to be an Avenger, but simply to be a modest, humble, neighborhood hero (and also to be a kid). Black Panther was about blackness undefined by, conquered by, enslaved by, or beholden to whiteness. Guardians of the Galaxy is about finding a family among other people whose families hurt them.

Infinity War—as Gerry Canavan observed to me—destroys each of these stories completely. It does not develop them, build on them, or bring them to a climax; it simply eats them up. Thor: Ragnarok ended with the remnants of Asgard sailing bravely into the future in a kind of space ark; Infinity War begins with that space Ark having been blasted to hell (and though Thor later says something about how “half” his people were killed, come on). Peter Parker ended his movie by declining to join the Avengers; in this movie, he joins the Avengers almost immediately. Black Panther is about a place where everyone is black, the white guys are not that important, and Wakanda’s survival is the most important thing; Infinity War has T’Challa deciding to sacrifice Wakanda in battle without any trace of the prickly and regal insularity that has been the entirety of his character up to that point. Guardians of the Galaxy was about finding a family and staying together; in Infinity War, Thor arrives and they break up the group immediately.

My point is that there’s a conflict between the accumulative narrative impulse to see these movies as one continuous story and the sprawling impulse that lets them maintain different styles and themes and even narrative logics. If the MCU has been good because they let different voices tell different types of stories—and to the extent that it is good, it is because of that—Infinity War is bad because it smashes them all into indistinguishable paste. The Collector said that a powerful person “can use the stones to mow down entire civilizations like wheat in a field”; this is a good description of how Infinity War relates to its constituent stories: it harvests them.

Let me put it this way: There’s an extractive, exploitative relationship between the Avengers “team up” movies and the standalone single-hero stories, the same relationship we see between the Infinity Stone MacGuffins and the stories that the various Marvel movies have built around them. The Infinity Stones are the real story, the big picture, the driving force behind their master-narratives in the same way that capital always thinks it’s the “job creator.” But this is exactly backwards, in exactly the way extractive relations of exploitation tend to condition their beneficiaries to misunderstand what is happening: The Infinity Stones and the “team up” movies are spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor of the standalone movies. Infinity War is the moment when profits are extracted from the richness and depth of their stories, skimmed off and collected and sold: “Look, we killed Spider-Man, Black Panther, Bucky, Gamora, Loki!” they say; “Look how it makes you feel!”

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