I’ll preface this piece by summarizing my overall reaction to the Marvel cinematic universe: It’s a series of mediocre-to-average films falsely elevated in popular culture because of the connective tissue between them and it has started an unstoppable corporate snowball that will dominate theaters with its bloated sets of background information for at least the next five years. That being said, this piece is about an older, subtler, more sinister phenomenon that stunts artistic, cultural, and emotional growth that happens to be present in Hollywood’s latest cape-wearers reunion.
First I want to define ‘serial storytelling’ as I see it. I’m borrowing the phrase from James Rocchi’s piece on the Marvel machine. He spends a few paragraphs explaining how the Marvel films, as well as the comics they come from, don’t even work well as a whole. It’s impossible for the stakes to be raised because the major characters are not allowed to die. They end where they started, with a status quo rather than a major upheaval.
I would add that the narrative side of professional wrestling seems to function that way as well. Though I’m not a fan myself, I read a Wrestlemania recap by MovieBob that explained the way wrestling stories work. He mentioned that certain characters may eventually take their turn as the bad guy (I believe he used the term ‘heel’ to describe the villainous role). If you think this sounds foolish, then we’re in the same lifeboat. What good is a character that is so flexible they will eventually play all the roles? This is not the ‘live long enough to see yourself become the bad guy’ dynamic, it’s the ‘I only have this many pieces in my play set’ dynamic. Real storytelling is about creating new pieces or entirely new play sets. This is the ‘serial storytelling’ issue (serial like the killers rather than the radio dramas): the main goal (in the case of Marvel and Disney definitely defined by profit) is to repeat yourself endlessly using your fans’ addiction to lore and Easter eggs as a way to disguise the shallowness of the whole affair.
I have seen all of the Marvel films and, even though I’m not a reader of the comics, I often know more about the arc of the entire universe than a much more enthusiastic viewer. I sometimes wonder if the actual connective tissue (which seems to overwhelm and stiffen the films rather than add to them) contributes to the popularity of the series at all. It may be the more ethereal, yet very noisy, set of social media strings that hold everything together. Viewers know the movies are connected without even knowing how. It’s a tiny thrill to be ‘in the loop’ of such a large ‘experiment’. All those billions of dollars for what amounts to a $7.50 tease for the next $7.50 tease. It’s continuity pornography and the whole landscape will wind up more stagnant and corporate as a result.
I had hoped ‘serial storytelling’ would never transfer from comics to cinema (though I didn’t know I hoped that until I saw the Marvel cinematic universe form). The one reason I only enjoy comics that are mostly or wholly separate from the main superhero universes (things like Bone, Watchmen, and Maus) is that there really is no investment in traditional comics. Characters in the mainstream books are constantly resurrected, rebooted, rewritten, de-aged, gender or race swapped… and some of the same things often happen to the entire universe when they don’t like the way it’s going. It’s a rapid primitive cycle of bacterial growth, overpopulation, and environmental culling. We’re going to see the idea of superheroes ruined in film (if it hasn’t been already) by this in an even grander way than how the un-life was drained from the undead with the zombie craze of the last decade.
The idea that entertainment and art are about giving people what they want is a thick-skulled interpretation of both ideas. In reality it’s much more like exploring a foreign land or performing scientific research. Art and entertainment are not about giving people what they want; they’re about giving people what they don’t know they want. The Marvel machine is too immature to understand that.