I could talk about AVENGERS: ENDGAME and review it in some detail, but there’s still a couple of folks making their way back to Earth from some fifth dimension, or trapped in some cave who aren’t able to see the new movie like, well, the bulk of the freaking free world if the box office numbers are to be believed. It’s been hyped, cheered, dissected and analyzed (mostly before it opened), and spoiled by plenty of folks. I won’t add my noise to theirs on that front.
Instead, I’m recalling a quick discussion with a guy who generously calls me a collaborator on occasion and friend, Derrick Ferguson, over why the MCU has worked over DC and their DCEU in capturing and holding an audience for the last eleven years or so when, because of history prior to that, DC was the big dog in the game. My opinion? DC markets archetypes presented as icons; Marvel’s marketing people who just happened to become iconic without losing their humanity. There are fans of the DCEU who see it differently, marking off the MCU as lazy or simplified storytelling “dumbed down” for the audience who aren’t ready for DC’s digging deeper to deconstruct their heroes in a higher concept of storytelling.
Which is why you almost never let fans of a certain iteration of a property sit in the driver’s seat: they miss the big picture because they’re sticking to a certain ideology with a specific focus. Y’know, sort of like religion, just replace your deity of choice with Superman and add your ego to the mix. Superheroes, especially superheroes on film aren’t supposed to be overly complicated; they’re supposed to be accessible and relatable. Now some long time comic fans will disagree, which is why they’re fans, but the reality of the business side is to get someone who will never, and I mean NEEEEEVVVVVVER ever, open a comic book because they love the films to keep coming back to those films. That’s something you can’t do trying to redefine a character on your tastes and terms, because all you’ll get is a room full folks staring at the screen annoyed they spent money to watch something where you’re told later by the guy who made it, you’re an idiot because didn’t take that online course in mind reading so you could see what he meant to do. An audience will not keep returning to watch a product that features you and your ego basically looking in a mirror and telling yourself you’re pretty because your mom said so for two hours and change…
…nope not even your mom and she said that in the first place.
And if you think the MCU is simplified storytelling, maybe you need to look again and drill down deep at what you obviously overlooked from IRON MAN to ENDGAME. See for the last eleven years you’ve been watching (and maybe noticing) a little bit of feature film history. The MCU basically told the longest superhero film story ever, in a shared universe, with dozens of relatively unknown (to the general public) characters, crossing over from various solo films into a team franchise that spun off into still more solo ventures with even more obscure characters that managed to not only keep hardcore comics fans coming back but captured the imagination of the public at large to the point that they’ve kept it alive from the very beginning to the end of a story spanning 22 films total including characters under license that are still not completely under Marvel’s control. Mind you all this in an overall framework where the storyline is being written and refined on the fly in real time adhering to a master schedule that was firm but flexible enough to add A list heroes like Spider-Man as they went.
And the majority of these stories were great films that kept improving as they came out.
Say what you want about high concept and digging deep: so-called simplified storytelling worked.
But if you look at the MCU’s big three that have been the foundation of this ride Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, to say these guys are cardboard cutouts is a disservice to the growth of their characters over the last decade plus. If you had to told me when I first sat down to watch IRON MAN at the Grand Lake Theater that I’d be there eleven years later still watching RDJ suiting up – I’d have called you nuts. I know because at the time folks thought IRON MAN was a fluke. They thought that eyes were bigger than stomachs and that this project couldn’t pull off what it promised.
And yet here we are: ENDGAME.
The secret to Marvel’s success? They sell you people who just happen to live with remarkable abilities and circumstances, but are as flawed as the rest of us. They fall short. They have relatable relationship trouble. Occasionally there’s the mentor hitting on your hot aunt (I’m looking at you Marisa Tomei), They realize they’re fighting robots with a bow and arrows which, despite it being the truth, is patently ridiculous when you say it out loud. They doubt themselves and each other.
They aren’t icons: they’re generally a hot mess. And you know that though you don’t own a magic hammer or a suit of high tech armor, you can relate to Tony Stark not being on his game because Pepper left him over being an obsessed workaholic who is a little addicted to walking into danger because his mental armor keeps him from being emotionally exposed as much as the physical suit he wears. We can relate to Steve Rogers being the near perfect man whose biggest regret is never having made a different choice to be with a woman he truly loved because he had a duty to perform for the greater good. We’ve been or know a Thor who is fully aware of his greatness to the point of arrogance who is brought down and humbled because for all his power he forgets to look before he leaps. The MCU is full of misfits, people seeking redemption, lost love, hopes rewarded, destinies fulfilled, growth, change, and maturity. The experiences are layered into the adventures and despite their starring title status: these guys fall short, but push on to overcome their own shortcomings as much as whatever villain of the story they’re facing.
And that’s how you engage your audience.
Sure we could travel to secret temples and watch Bruce Wayne do all the ninja training in the world, but DC tends to emphasize the icon over the humanity of it all. The human touch that was masterfully conveyed by actors like Reeve and Keaton became bits of business that were shrugged off if it got in the way of whoever was interpreting their vision of icon over human.
For example, if you want to deconstruct Superman the trick is to connect with the man, not the super stuff. Sure Kal-El is an alien, but he’s also Clark Kent, that guy from Smallville who just wants to win Lois Lane’s heart as Kent, not the flying guy who shoots lasers from his eyes. That guy may not be terribly exciting, but he’s the one in the driver’s seat when he puts on the cape, and he should reflect that hopeful optimism as a baseline to his personality even in a darker world. That’s Superman’s core. Steve Rogers walked through Germany in the middle of World War II and came out of it changed, but at his core he was still that kid from Brooklyn trying to do the right thing and stand up for those who can’t do so themselves.
What the MCU realized though was Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Thor would be on a journey where they should be different people by the time it’s all over. Where they should reflect the experiences they’ve faced as a group and as individuals. That’s exactly what happened to them. Go back and watch IRON MAN before you watch or rewatch ENDGAME and if you think Tony Stark is still the same man he was when he started, I’ll say it outright: you lack basic observation skills. You rewatch CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER and if you say Steve Rogers is still exactly who he was when we get to ENDGAME, I’ll call the shrink so we can get you looked over. If you still think THOR is that arrogant, entitled so and so that he was when he gets to ENDGAME, then go off to pursue that obvious high art, friend; you need to be told it’s such since you don’t notice the genuine article when it’s been playing out before you for the better part of a decade.
I’ve said it earlier but it bears repeating: You don’t get more high art than people growing from who they are to who they can be and occasionally stumbling along in the dark as confused as the rest of us, but willing to do the right thing despite their failings. There is nothing more heroic or badass than recognizing that you can still rise above your problems even if you come crashing back to earth. For a few seconds you rise above your problems or your personality which means the potential is there to do it again. When that time does come where you find yourself staring in the face of what you fear most: you’ll also find you have the strength to face it. It’s not a guarantee of a win by any means. Winning or losing isn’t as important as rising to meet the challenge regardless.
That’s the high concept.
Deconstruction isn’t evolution.
It’s not about the mechanics – the how and the why so and so is the way they are at all. It’s about how they become who they were meant to be by simply following their path and living with the people they become. The arrogant guy in the DIY suit of armor walking out of a cave, the kid from Brooklyn lying his way through screening after screening to fight the bully, Odinson squandering his potential because of his lack of humility aren’t even close to the men we end this part of the journey with.
Who they are now, the men they became (and still had to become) to face the greatest challenge of their time together?
That, friends was the real adventure.
You just had to be willing to drill deeper and pay attention.
I did, and I’m glad I was proven wrong on IRON MAN being a fluke all those years ago.
“There came a day unlike any other…”
…And you and I were there to see how it ended.
I think that was a journey worth making.
Excelsior, True Believers…
…be good to yourselves and each other.