An essay about Marvel Studios and Disney’s introduction and creation of the comic-book myth in the cinema.
In 2019, auteur and famed gangster-genre filmmaker Martin Scorsese wrote an op-ed for the New York Times describing his opinionated critique of how Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe is not equatable to his definition of cinema. This was not a critique of the filmmaker and swathes of individuals who help craft these works of the superhero myth, writing:
“Many franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry. You can see it on the screen.”
For him, it is a question of taste, of subjective interest in a franchise of films that often present themselves as aloof from gravity — stories without consequences, without realism. Scorsese explains this by writing:
“For me, for the filmmakers, I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual revelation.”
This — of course, in the age of social media augmentation in which simple critiques are elevated to personal attacks against one’s self and one’s identity — quickly became a dividing line in the realm of cinephiles and even average filmgoers. The reception of his 1,400-word explanation for his original and more incendiary critique was almost immediately whittled down to his film criticism of Marvel movies. Ignoring his more economical and legitimate complaints about the realm of Hollywood, mega-blockbuster, franchise filmmaking crowding out the theater, and forcing the more nuanced, indie, and often artsier works to take their business elsewhere, such as streaming services — as Scorsese himself did in 2019 with The Irishman.
However, while I am not arguing against Mr. Scorsese’s idiomatic tastes that suit his definition of cinema, there is something to be praised about the advent of superhero filmmaking. Precisely, the success Marvel Studios and Disney have found in the last twelve years.
It’s been decades in the making as well, from the earliest known comic-book, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck by Rodolphe Töpffer in 1837, to the iconic manifestation of the superhero in Action Comics #1 with Superman to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s legendary reinvention of comics in the ’60s to the magnificent run of stories that could be collected from both major comic book publishers throughout the ’80s and ’90s — superhero filmmaking has long waited for its rightful time in the sun.
Before this igniting of a long-loved art form for a mainstream and unfamiliar audience, American comic books were often viewed as the modern-day incarnation of greek mythology. These were stories of larger than life gods that tether emotional narratives to decades worth of fictitious history. This is a unique feature of mythology, and occasionally genre, as Scorsese himself has proven with an array of films in the genre of mobsters and hustlers that fall in line with John Cawelti’s writing on genre transformations. But in mythology, shared characters develop a life’s worth of intimate experiences, of trauma, of history that extends the tapestry in which the creators can pull upon when telling new stories.
In filmmaking, this sense of living stories can only be found in what Marvel Studios has achieved. With the first run of “issues” arriving in the late aughts and early 2010s with Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor. Each of them was campaigning for the notion of connecting these characters to one sprawling, universal story, which inevitably led to the release of the mammoth financial hit, The Avengers. A film that was the culmination of the first “phase” of marvel storytelling by introducing these characters to the audience before introducing them to each other and allowing the organic story of personal tensions and identity to take center stage.
It’s nearly impossible to overstate the impact of such an achievement. It would lead to a lineage of filmmaking that would span the next seven years and include seismic shifts for these characters and, occasionally, whole reinventions with fresh-faced filmmakers and storytellers like that of a comic run when the pen changes hands. Like myself, avid comic readers were used to such an idea with the history of comic runs like Swamp Thing being overtaken by a young Alan Moore.
Perhaps the most pragmatic and utilitarian effect of this shared universe concept, however, is that it would allow storytellers to use shared events as the ignition for character development such as in Shane Black’s 2013 feature, Iron Man 3. Black wisely sought to use the events of The Avengers as a tool to pry open the character of Tony Stark further. By using his sacrificial attempt and discovery of life beyond the stars, Tony wrestles with trauma and comes to grips with his ever-expanding role as an Avenger. It’s something more than a sequel; it’s an invention never before seen in the cinema.
In the time since, Marvel and Disney have finished telling their original story that began in 2008 with their majestic and financially incomparable achievement Avengers: Endgame. A film with a massive $356 million budget, with four separate film crews for location-based shooting, nearly 1,000 crew members, 161 cast members, and probably featured another $200 million in marketing costs. It all paid off, of course, as the film grossed $1.2 billion globally in its opening weekend and nearly $3 billion by its final showing, edging out James Cameron 2009 blockbuster, Avatar, by no more than a few million dollars — a title that may not hold for long if Cameron and company decide to re-release Avatar in anticipation of its impending sequels.
Nevertheless, Endgame will forever remain a part of cinematic history for both its artistic achievement and the sheer scope of manufacturing that took place just to bring it to life. It’s an incredible thing to fold actors and writers and directors into unison for a story that requires their shared cooperation and emotional engagement. It’s worth all the trouble involved, however, if it creates a new class of cinema.
And its a film worthy of attention, in my opinion. A star-studded, theme-park ride of guttural emotion with genuine stakes and definitive artistic merit in its choices to embark upon personal avenues. In lesser hands, Endgame may have been a war-movie featuring battled characters whose only objective is to conquer the mad Titan who has committed irrevocable harm against their planet. And while, by night’s end, that is a part of screenwriter Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s narrative, there’s also a dedicated landscape of story for these characters and their respective journeys.
As the film uses its genre convention of time travel to generate plot, while also allowing the characters to interact with those they’ve lost amid the journey to Endgame. It allows Tony to finally bury the hatchet with his father and inevitably decide to lay on the wire. It permits Steve to finally acknowledge his longing for normalcy, to let go of the shield and go dancing with his best girl. It acknowledges Thor’s long history of loss and suffering and his needed redemption to become who he’s always been and not who the world wanted him to be.
It also just so happens to reward those who’ve been ingesting these mythological creations since the inception of its story, as the Russo Brothers purposefully dedicate scenes to connect and parody the moment’s audiences have come to love throughout an eleven-year long story.
Now, in the dumpster fire year that is 2020, this radiating and diverging universal narrative has been placed on the back-burner for the world to wait and enjoy once more when health and safety have returned to America’s shores. Yet, as announced last week, the story will continue before year’s end with Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany’s Wandavision, set to air on Disney+ in December.
The story will always continue, which is perhaps the bittersweet realization of the mythology. While characters will inevitably meet their respective demise, the story continues. Much like that of life itself, we lose people along the way, but the world continues to spin. It’s a meta-manifestation of sorts, but one that reflects life in a way the cinema never has before with a story that may span for decades by continually introducing and resuscitating the mythology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s worked for comics for almost an entire century’s worth of publishing new characters, re-birthed universes, and evolving, maturing authors to tell new stories with familiar faces.
Who’s to say Marvel Studios won’t achieve the same legacy?