Wolverine, the MCU, and What Comic Book Movies Have Become

Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is dog shit.  I’ve been working intermittently on a series of posts about it for about a year at this point, but I keep returning to the same fundamental problem.  There’s nothing there.  Almost every movie is the same movie, and every one of them sucks.

But how did we get here?  Is the MCU the logical continuation of the general trends in the comic book movie genre?  Do they reflect the prevailing interests and entertainment needs of society at large, do they cater to the lowest common denominator?  If they do, what’s changed, if anything?

It’s difficult to address these issues without having something coherent to contrast it all against.  I can rail against Marvel’s shoddy writing, quipy dialogue, and bloated movie effects, but without pointing toward a couple of similar movies that have done comic book adaptation to a tolerable degree, it just sounds like empty prattling.  With that in mind, I figured Logan’s release gave me a good excuse to re-watch the old X-Men movies see how they stood up to today’s standards of comic book entertainment.

X-Men (2000, 2002, 2006, 2009)

The first X-Men movie has not aged well.  Its practical effects look a lot like the sort of cheesy 90s action movie style stunts that it had to work with at the time.  Wirework, collapsing stages, and somewhat underwhelming explosions are the norm, coupled with very poorly aged CG work that almost makes a casual viewer nostalgic for old PlayStation games again.  Even its script isn’t terribly great.

Yet in terms of being a comic book movie, it blows away its modern competition.  Most of it comes across as if it’s written by fourteen-year-olds who get their social programming cues from their liberal teachers, and it’s thrown together with a cast that happens to include a couple of talented thespians capable of delivering C-grade lines steadfastly enough to be convincingly over-the-top.  What I’m saying is that X-Men knows its audience, and that audience isn’t comic book lovers or forty-year old childless fans of the spandex-wearing comic book heroes.  That audience are the nine-year-olds that want the cool toys and their tired moms who have the time to be dragged to the movie theatres.  The nine-year-olds get cool props and sophisticated-sounding pseudo-science.  The moms get Hugh Jackman’s abs.

This might sound jarring, considering that X-Men is mostly responsible for rehabilitating the superhero/comic book movie genre after it was given a rather grotesque coup de grâce with Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin from several years earlier.  Yet X-Men, much like its source material, tries to make social commentary, develop a legitimate set of characters with real-seeming motivations, and depict its story in a reasonable fashion as to convey a reality that’s deeper than rubber abs and florescent props.  It set a baseline for comic book movies; on one hand it preserves the camp of a comic book, on the other it attempts to make these characters interesting enough to carry a two hour long movie.  Each of the first four X-Men films preserve that balance—though to less nuanced degree in The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine.  The former of those two tries a bit too hard to be relevant, pushing a misplaced gay-agenda ahead of the camp, with the latter being a prattling indulgence of excess coolness that you’d expect to find in a conversation between twelve-year-olds.

It’s difficult to keep the serious and the campy balanced, but so long as a film remains committed to one side of that scale, it usually works out fine.  Maintaining a careful hand when exploring the work’s themes and generally avoiding the self-indulgent path of social commentary also help.  The Last Stand’s ridiculous attempt to be relevant in a world that was questioning the nature of sexuality and homosexual relationships is not only an obvious example of artistic tone-deafness, but also a ludicrous and ultimately unnecessary plot point entirely.  X-Men had never been about mostly-harmless individuals being born different from everyone else and subsequently oppressed by society at large.  It was about what to do with post-human beings who have incomprehensible powers—some of whom might turn out to be moral, virtuous individuals, while others end up wanting to commit genocide against those unfortunate enough to be born as lowly mortals.  Attempts to conflate that with any real-world analogue can only be pathetic and misconstrued empty messages; gays don’t have the power to threaten national security or cause world-ending events any more than your average person does.  There is nothing intrinsic to gayness that can summon cataclysmic storms, manipulate magnetism, or read peoples’ minds—to say nothing of the mythical and at this point discredited theory of some sort of “gay gene”.  But someone like Xavier?  Or Magneto?  There’s nothing to compare that to outside of comic book fantasies.  As a result, anything The Last Stand has to say about oppression, being yourself, and accepting what others are end up sounding ridiculous.  I’ll return to this point below.

As if learning from the poor attempt at grandstanding from the last movie, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine took a radically different approach.  It went full comic book schlock, throwing together badass superheroes that were too cool for control, elite military outfits, secret government installations (that doubled as a nuclear power plant), frontier country, and a hot damsel in distress into the same mix, and then it packaged it all as a prequel to the beloved film trilogy.  As a result, there’s about as much social commentary to be found in Origins as there is in a televised WWE professional wrestling show.  In fact, if the first X-Men movie felt like it was written by fourteen-year-olds, this one was probably written by the screenwriter’s eight-year-old son during the kid’s birthday party.  The movie really knows its audience.  It’s the audience that only wants a manly badass walking away from explosions, stabbing helicopters out of the sky, fighting mutants on top of cooling towers, and foiling military geniuses, peppered with just enough tragedy to throw in a few shots of Hugh Jackman howling at the sky in rage three or four times.  That’s what kids want in their action movies, and so long it isn’t weighed down by anything like drama or plot, that’s usually going to make them happy.  Plot’s only something to pad out the film between action scenes, anyway.  And in Origins, the result is pretty awesome.  And stupid as all hell.

The important part of it all is that despite their ups and downs, these X-Men movies weren’t afraid of committing to their ends.  They didn’t pretend to be anything other than movies based on comic books, they didn’t present themselves as sophisticated stories for people over the age of fourteen, and they certainly didn’t try to distract from crappy writing with quirky dialogue or attempt to substitute character development with arbitrary exposition.  In fact, they seemed to relish in the sort of goofiness that defines examination.

The X-Men Versus the MCU

I don’t have the space in this post to really expand on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s flaws, but it should be enough to touch on the most significant issue.  Marvel’s movies all lack the strength of a committed endeavor; they are movies that stop short of being movies for their own sake.  Instead, they are movies that embody a self-reflexive irony in their scripts.  They are stories that poke fun at themselves while simultaneously trying to be the very stories that they poke fun at.  And with the sort of balancing act that they’re playing, they can’t have it both ways.

This is somewhat of an overgeneralization.  The first handful of Marvel flicks are mostly okay, resembling X-Men in substance and execution more than The Avengers, despite using the cast and crew that would show up in the latter again.  If the MCU had continued in the vein set out by those first few, then the MCU probably wouldn’t have turned into the soulless cluster of garbage that it is today.  But, no use crying over bought franchises.

About when Disney purchased Marvel’s properties, the shift in tone from the irreverent, post-X-Men saga superhero films to unserious narrative schizophrenia and visually-opaque excess became apparent.  Superhero films were heading in this direction already, I think, with the likes of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Spirit, Watchmen, Green Lantern, and the Hellboy films indulging in each of their fantastical worlds with a visual extravaganza that only fantasy movies can produce.  Likewise, as the culture shifted in the past ten years from vacant pessimism in need of big dumb action flicks for entertainment into one of ironic self-awareness in which living itself became a form of escapism, the comic book movies tried to keep pace with how they wrote in their comic relief.  Certainly, asides and quips existed in the old X-Men movies, as well as in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and, really, in just about every comic book movie to date.  But it wasn’t until The Avengers that audiences saw the culmination of quip-culture that their twitter, memes, and irony had given rise to.

Avengers presents a world much like X-Men did, where an ensemble of individuals with special powers or skills are in a position to affect the lives of everyone else—“everyone else,” in this case, usually consisted of helpless civilians caught in the rubble of collapsing buildings or stony-faced military officials and their gun-toting escorts.  The first handful of MCU movies played this in the same fashion that the other comic book movies had: a blend of cartoonish violence and a melodramatic flair for the pulp, with just enough realism to make the characters stand out as more than mere robots.  But from The Avengers onward, things took a nosedive.

The characters of The Avengers are little more than props shaped like human beings.  This isn’t to suggest that The Avengers had to be terribly character-driven.  Nor, even, that any action or comic book movie need be peppered with the sort of maudlin over-dramatics you should expect from Oscar bait.  What any movie of its sort should have, however, is at least some sort of reason for the audience to invest themselves in the conflict at hand.  X-Men, despite much of its amusingly bad writing, at least had competent actors who could take C- scripts and turn them into B+ amusement.  The Avengers, lacking that sort of talent both in front of and behind the camera, took D+ scripts and then tried to cover for itself with obnoxious asides to the audience.

This is the problem: Avengers tried to have it both ways—though not quite in the same sense that comic book movies usually do.  X-Men: The Last Stand tried to be politically relevant.  Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy tried to be socially relevant.  Both were failures, in part because comic books lack the tools to be relevant to anything outside of themselves.  Avenger’s problem was that it tried to be culturally relevant—and not merely in the superficial way of knowing which slang to use in the script or what popular figure to reference.

The story of Avengers was the standard one for an ensemble hero movie: a bad guy wants to destroy or rule the world, and a bunch of established good guys have to defeat him and save the planet; in the process, they learn the value of friendship and teamwork.  Every Saturday morning kids’ cartoon show from the last five decades has the same general plot, and that’s because it’s a pretty good fantastical pulp-style plot to have.  It gives the writer a good excuse to explore some aspects of characters that would otherwise be left untouched in their solo features, while at the same time providing ample potential for large-scale action and reasons to show off special effects—and corporate could sell toys and action figures all the while.

But the cultural landscape of 2012 was different than that of 2002.  It was more cynical and somewhat more delusional; decades of comic book movies, the stagnation of the film industry, as well as social factors including the inundation of college campuses with more students than ever before, the distinct non-starter economic ‘recovery’ of the 2008 financial crash, and the coming-of-age of millennials raised on cartoons, comics, alternative music, and video games had all fueled the rapid acceptance and embrace of geek culture by society at large.  Sure, this strain in the culture existed before, but it took until the 2010s before it really came into full swing.

What this meant for Avengers is that it wasn’t sufficient to merely be just another comic book movie anymore.  2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s terrible reviews and disappointing domestic numbers proved that.  Avengers had to be relevant to a market that wasn’t just comprised of the people who were going to buy action figures or Lego sets, it had to be relevant to the people who liked children’s cartoon shows from twenty years ago; it had to be relevant to people who were looking not just for nostalgia, but for something that made them feel clever for watching what should have been, by any reasonable standard, a children’s movie.  That meant tapping into the means by which the infantilization of the modern mind has been exacerbated—namely, ironic self-indulgence.

It’s written all over The Avengers’ narrative.  The quips and asides in the middle of high-octane fights and the pathetic attempts to shoehorn in character development with non-sequiturs and stiltedly-delivered sob stories betray the movie’s purpose, but those are exactly what comprises most of its foundation.  The first X-Men movie wasn’t really about Wolverine so much as he was a part of the larger story—likewise with Xavier and Magneto.  The Avengers, on the other hand, was supposed to be about these specific characters coming together as a team.  But instead of interactions that made sense, we’re supposed to believe that fast-talking pseudo-scientific tech-jargon and buddy-like joke babble are the best they can do.  Although it’s probably unintentional, the heroes at the end of The Avengers are even further apart from one another developmentally than they were at its start, and the only thing that was resolved was taking care of the monster of the week.

The post-Avengers MCU is riddled with this.  Guardians of the Galaxy is a perfect example.  It was a movie billed as fun, which is just what a comic book adventure film is supposed to be, with breathtaking action set pieces and weird alien worlds and a comfy atmosphere for all to enjoy.  Yet it starts off with a kid’s mother dying of a terminal illness before he’s abducted by aliens, only to spend the rest of the movie gallivanting across the cosmos and dancing like some sort of mentally-challenged manchild, and he still somehow scores some beautiful alien tail in the process.  Forget being fun.  The movie was depressing.  Nothing about it was relatable and nothing about it could even exist outside of the masturbatory fantasies of twenty-something basement-dwelling idiot.

These films try to be fun, because superhero movies probably should be light-hearted and entertaining.  But they also try to be dark, because the best stories contain some sort of drama in order to get the audience invested in the conflict.  The way the MCU handles that balancing act comes across more like a sixteen-year-old’s poor attempt at fanfiction rather than a movie actually aimed at sixteen-year-olds.  It has no room for the world in it to speak, in part because the world looks every bit as fake as the actors wearing their funny costumes are.  Their movies are movies pretending to be what they’re trying to make fun of, like a series of bizarre meta-ironic self-aware strawmen.  It’s sickening to behold.

The X-Men Versus The MCU… Versus The Narrative

After watching X-Men: The Last Stand, no one walked out thinking differently about gays in society—or any other marginalized group of people, for that matter.  It’d have been easier to make commentary on society’s reception to homosexuality with some sort of aesthetical costume decisions—a story about a boy born with horns, or green skin, or something like that.  Then the difference could serve as a metaphor, but a metaphor that at least retains its original referent.  A boy born with superpowers doesn’t represent anything anymore.  It’s simply fantasy.  Forcing an agenda into that sort of story isn’t just misplaced, it confuses the audiences.

In any case, keeping the fantastical elements of comic book superheroes next to realistic conflicts that make for good stories is certainly a perilous balancing act, but it can work so long as the audience doesn’t forget that these movies aren’t supposed to be great.  They aren’t really even supposed to be that good.  They’re entertainment for children.  That’s why screwing around with social commentary ends up screwing around with the audience.  The narrative of the X-Men is a story about superheroes dealing with oppression, but in real life, nobody’s being oppressed this way.  Not even close.  Pretending like this is a relevant conflict for adults to get something out of is madness.

And yet we see this sort of conflation of fantasy with reality among our more liberally-inclined nerdy friends all the time.  Political protests are inevitably dotted with signs referring to Voldemort or the Dark Side, conversations about social ailments end up drawing analogies to comic books, and that’s not even getting to the near-mythical status of pure evil that Hitler has ascended to in the popular culture—the entire Second World War is less a war today than it is a simplistic Hollywood action movie, and a mere offhand comment about the difference between Italian Fascism and the German National Socialism can earn you a couple disparaging remarks implying that you’re a legitimate Nazi sympathizer.  The fantasy of the war is more important for the narrative than its reality.  Because ‘the narrative’ is basically a comic book.

But this is the easy part.  The MCU’s effort to substitute reality is a bit more subtle, in part because the MCU hides behind its own mask of irony all the while.  It laughs at its own audience, or maybe it laughs with them—surely you can’t take the conflicts in The Avengers seriously, after all, our own heroes don’t take it seriously!  Watch them make friendly banter while mowing down legions of robots without even breaking a sweat!  It’s as if the movie attempts to congratulate its audience for being sophisticated enough to appreciate its mindless, cartoonish shlock.  You can catch a few references!  Now you’re part of the in-crowd!  This sort of crap is all over Disney’s modern films, and yet, cynically, this sort of filmmaking seems to work.  They cash in big at the box office every single time, despite making movies that are about as memorable and noteworthy as the wallpaper at your dentist’s waiting room.  This sort of moviemaking isn’t about the fantasy and imagination of The Wizard of Oz or the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; it’s moviemaking for two hour long advertisements of themselves.  Cinema has only now entered the postmodern period of vacuous ‘hyperrealisms’; when movies have ceased being movies despite all the pretenses of a movie having taken place, there is no memorable substance beneath the extravaganza, no memory of its passing—only the imprint of a marketing campaign and the vague recollection of a few ubiquitous actors.

This sort of thing was a joke twenty years ago.  The Last Action Hero made a whole movie out of poking fun at the bloated testosterone-fueled blockbusters of the 80s and 90s, using the creative device of the silver screen itself as part of its parody.  But even it managed to have a heart beneath all of it.  The MCU’s movies are The Last Action Hero played straight, again and again, reminding you that you’re always just watching some actors do some stunts on screen instead of a movie that bothered formulating an immersive fictional environment that at least bears a passing resemblance to comic book aesthetics.  It reminds you that it’s a movie that’s only pretending to be a movie, and that it isn’t even all that good, and that you have paid twelve bucks for a two-and-a-half hour long simulation of a movie poster.  It knows that its audience is too old to buy the action figures, but they might buy into the nostalgia of when they were old enough to do that.  It assumes that its audience isn’t mature enough to know the difference between watching a good action movie that has a great conflict, believable characters, and enough drama to keep it interesting, versus when a studio’s just trying to cynically pull its virtue-signaling wool over their eyes.  And again and again, it keeps raking in enough money at the box office to be proven right on both counts.

In the face of the soul-crushingly empty vehicle of pithy, self-referential nonsense, even something like X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s comparatively innocent indulgence into high-octane action and ridiculous melodrama is a breath of fresh air.  Hollywood has gotten so bad that the bad movies of yesteryear are looking better and better with each passing overinflated blockbuster they spit out.  It’s pathetic.  Movies are terrible.

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