There has been much ado lately about whether the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“MCU”) constitute “cinema.”
People have argued about whether something is “art” for as long as humans have been making it. What this binary debate misses is the power that stories can have in our lives no matter the genre or style of filmmaking. Indeed, it is often the stories that are the furthest removed from our reality that can allow us to reconsider our notions of right and wrong.
Contemporary myths, whether they be about superheroes, science fiction or fantasy, can bolster our empathy for other points of view and also provide inspiration to be a better version of ourselves. And so, the current discussion about the MCU and its cultural impact has moved me to share a rather profound experience that I had this summer when three generations of my family rewatched many of the 23 Marvel movies together.
Yes, you read that right. I just used “profound” in the same sentence as “Marvel,” and I sincerely meant it. Allow me to explain. Earlier this year, my oldest of three children had surgery and spent most of the summer recovering. So, what do you do when you have three children and can’t do the things that kids normally do in the summer?
You watch movies. A lot of movies.
My baby boomer parents were thankfully around often to help out, and so we needed to find entertainment that people ages eight to 68 could enjoy together. The answer became clear: Marvel. And so we found ourselves, every night, marching through film after film as if binging a show on Netflix. Many of us had, of course, seen the various movies as they came out in the theater over the last decade.
However, watching these movies all at once was an entirely different experience. A rewatch of these films unfolds like reading a novel. In particular, knowing how the story ends sharpened our focus both on the particulars of the plot and the unfolding of long term character arcs.
But as rewarding as it was to deepen our appreciation of maintaining a coherent plot and character arcs across 23 movies, the experience of rewatching in 2019 in particular is what elevated compelling entertainment into something far more meaningful.
These are dark times. I am raising my children in the United States at a time when faith in our democratic institutions is eroding. I am deeply concerned about the threats of authoritarianism and white supremacy at home and the dangers that climate change presents to the world. Unfortunately, so are my children. And so the profound discovery upon rewatching the Marvel movies as one long mythical tale is that these superhero stories provided us with an accessible way to talk about our world in 2019.
In many of the films, the makers of the Marvel movies chose to tell distinctly political stories — the roots of which, of course, are in the comics themselves.
For example, Captain America was first introduced in 1941 by writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby and featured an iconic image of Steve Rogers punching Adolf Hitler in the face. Kirby and Stan Lee (literally) resurrected Captain America in the 1960s and comics penned by Steve Englehart a decade later explored overtly political themes, such as government conspiracies and corruption in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War.
The films wisely decided to keep playing in that same political sandbox. It was a prescient choice that adds layers of meaning and significance to the films as they age and will likely increase the longevity of their cultural impact. Genre fare, from science fiction to superhero stories, is particularly well suited to explore political allegory in a thought provoking way. Presenting political challenges that are slightly removed from our everyday problems allows the viewer to consider issues from a new perspective.
In an increasingly polarized world, we may find ourselves less able to agree on real world issues while consuming the news through fragmented media. But there is a potential value to be found in genre tentpole entertainment that allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes because a debate is not necessarily tied to the present.
This is exactly what happened when three generations of my family rewatched the collective of Marvel films known as “The Infinity Saga.” In particular, five films prompted revealing discussions that we would not have otherwise had were it not for the common experience of watching them:
‘Captain America: The First Avenger’
In 2011, Captain America: The First Avenger seemed like a refreshing throwback — a respite from the morally grey canvas of DC’s The Dark Knight. Watching Captain America and Agent Carter battle Nazis during WWII harkened back to a “simpler time” when it was “easy” to figure out who the “bad guys” were.
In response to the question as to why he wants to join the Army, Steve Rogers says, “I don’t like bullies.” It was always a signature character moment. Like Superman, a hero who uses his strength to fight for freedom rather than domination is particularly attractive. It represents perhaps our greatest wish fulfillment: that people with power use it to lift others up rather than push them down.
However, unlike Clark Kent, Steve Rogers is of our world. He wears the stars and stripes of the American flag and espouses the ideals that we want to believe are the best version of our county. In 2019, there was not a dry eye in our house upon hearing that simple statement again. Our conversation immediately went to the bully currently occupying the White House, the rise of white supremacy in the United States and beyond, and the horrors of immigration detention centers on our border.
All of a sudden the film seemed less a celebration of our past achievements in fighting fascism and more like a call to action to fight against the bullies of today.
As an American living in 2019, there is something deeply unsettling about watching a hero in red, white, and blue fighting for freedom and wondering if we still stand for that. It’s a powerful reminder of who we want to be. If you rewatch The First Avenger now, you will likely measure our country against that ideal and find it wanting.
‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’
2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier payed homage to the political thrillers of the 1970s and reflected contemporary anxiety about surveillance and preemptive strikes in the wake of the War on Terror. And while these public concerns still resonate today, viewing the story through the lens of events of the last year adds new depth.
The Winter Soldier is essentially a story about corrupt forces within the U.S government who do not have the public interest at heart. Captain America and his allies are, in effect, whistleblowers caught between a rock and a hard place of serving one’s country while also standing up to its leaders who threaten to undermine democracy.
There are obvious parallels to the various whistleblowers who have recently come forward in the United States to call out abuses of power within the executive branch. I often field questions from my children about how civil servants and the military can best serve our country under its current leadership. My children are not yet old enough to grasp similar themes in All The President’s Men or Three Days of the Condor (in which Robert Redford interestingly played the protagonist rather than the villain).
However, The Winter Soldier provides several accessible examples of individuals struggling with how best to speak truth to power. My children grappled with whether it was justified for Nick Fury to withhold the truth from Captain America and others as he investigated the government’s plans for catastrophic preemptive strikes. They watched as Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, Sam Wilson, and Sharon Carter balanced patriotism and service with how to oppose government policies harmful to the public interest.
Indeed, the speech given by Captain America to his colleagues perhaps best encapsulates any whistleblower’s dilemma: “The price of freedom is high and always has been. And it’s a price I’m willing to pay. If I’m the only one, so be it. But I’m willing to bet that I’m not.” It is often a solitary and risky path to speak truth to power, but it can also inspire others to do the same. In 2019 in particular there is an important power in watching a hero take that lonely walk that brings corruption to an end.
‘Captain America: Civil War’
Not surprisingly, Captain America: Civil War (2016) prompted the most spirited debate between my children and baby boomer grandparents. Indeed, the movie is designed to provoke discussion: Should the Avengers serve under the command of the United Nations or remain independent under the threat of arrest? This dilemma is a common thread that runs through many superhero stories — are they heroes serving the public interest or vigilantes acting outside the law?
The interesting moment that occurred as a result of rewatching this movie in 2019 was the generational divide in reaction to the film. My baby boomer parents sided with Iron Man. They argued, perhaps as a result of their past political experiences, that unilateral action often ends poorly and everyone must follow the rule of law.
On the other hand, my children argued for Captain America’s point of view. They cited the current American president and his disregard for following the rules. They balked at the idea of the vast power of superheroes being under the control of someone who is corrupt and cited the lessons of The Winter Soldier. My parents in turn argued that leaders who flout the law will ultimately be held accountable — perhaps born of living through Watergate. My children (and I) were far more skeptical given the current lack of political will in some corners of our government to do the same.
To be fair, the desire to enforce or flout rules may, of course, have something to do with the perspectives of the old versus the young. But this film also distilled something unfortunately unique about the times in which my children are coming of age: Their current leaders consider themselves above the rules, and so it’s natural for my children to question the value of submitting to rules while they observe the leaders entrusted with enforcing the law openly flout it.
A fictional debate between superheroes gave rise to a real-life moment between different generations of my family voicing their perspectives on the rule of law.
‘Avengers: Infinity War’ and ‘Avengers: Endgame’
Finally, that brings us to the end of the saga. In the events of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), characters with varying talents and resources and from very different backgrounds must band together to overcome an overwhelming threat to existence. Sound familiar? These two movies can serve as an accessible parable to process the challenges presented by climate change. And given that my children will likely bear the brunt of my and prior generations’ failure to address this existential threat, it seems particularly significant that Marvel chose to tell this story now.
If the parallels to climate change weren’t obvious, the antagonist Thanos even invokes dwindling resources and overpopulation as his justification for unilaterally reducing the population with the snap of a finger. Indeed, my children and parents debated the extent to which Thanos has a point (even if they disagreed with his remedy). They all expressed frustration with a lack of collective urgency in our world regarding these issues.
But the way that Marvel chose to tell this story is also important. My children watched our heroes at first utterly fail — an uncommon experience when watching or reading stories with children. They were, understandably, emotional and frustrated. The movie pulls no punches in depicting the catastrophic price of failure. The striking images of people turning to dust is a far more accessible and dramatic metaphor for the effects of climate change than describing rising water levels or increasing levels of carbon dioxide.
Moreover, in the second part of the story, the filmmakers chose to explore the emotional cost of failure in Avengers: Endgame. Characters argue with one another, comfort each other, go to therapy, wallow in self pity, or withdraw from the world. Each character struggles with failure in a different way — just as people do in real life. My children’s reactions to that varied, which prompted a cross-generational discussion about how people process failure. But then they rejoiced when the protagonists finally came together and decided to try again. The value of watching your heroes dust themselves off and not give up cannot be underestimated. It is particularly inspiring when global cooperation to tackle climate change is at a frustrating standstill.
In the story’s second act, the keys to success in Avengers: Endgame are science, sacrifice, cooperation, and determination. These elements will also be essential to literally saving our planet. That the film chose to exalt science at a time when the leadership of the U.S. government pointedly ignores it is particularly powerful. My children wondered aloud at scientists like Bruce Banner, Shuri, and Tony Stark using their technological know-how and intelligence to solve problems. The movie takes the time to depict the trial and error of scientists puzzling through challenges. It is significant that, no matter their strength or marvelous powers, the Avengers would not have saved the day were it not for the scientific discovery of time travel.
Avengers: Endgame also explores sacrifice and determination in an emotionally moving way. My children wept as Natasha Romanoff and Tony Stark willingly gave up their lives for a cause greater than themselves. They cheered as Thor overcame a debilitating lack of self worth and when Captain America gritted his way through battle and was deemed worthy of Thor’s hammer because of his inner qualities. The scale was grand, but the lessons were easy for them to grasp: Sometimes, to achieve a goal, you have to pick yourself back up and do the hard thing. It seems a particularly important message for pop culture to communicate to the generation that will have to save the planet if their parents can’t get their act together.
Finally, there is appreciable power in watching a story of people from very different backgrounds and points of view come together to overcome an existential threat through technology and sheer will. It is the perfect metaphor for the kind of global cooperation that will be necessary to address climate change. It is no coincidence that my oldest child spoke of the challenges presented by climate change and what she can do to make a difference after watching Avengers: Endgame for a second time.
On the surface, it may all sound like standard superhero fare. The “good guys” overcame the obstacle and saved the day. Except in 2019, we — children and adults — are sorely in need of heroes. And because these films often focused on the humanity of the characters, their flaws and insecurities as much as their talents and strengths, it is perhaps easier to identify with them than the Superman or Wonder Woman of my youth. Their strengths of harnessing science, cooperation, never giving up, and speaking truth to power are actually attainable for us mere mortals.
At their core, superhero stories are the myths of our time. And like the myths of old, they explore the nature of power: who has it and what should they do with it? Some of those themes are timeless: a hero who uses strength to defend the weak or makes discoveries that change the world for the better. But it is to the MCU’s credit that it continued to elevate these myths, as its source material did, to also explore political themes in a way that gives us a common jumping off point to discuss the challenges of our time. For my family, they gave grandparents and grandchildren a framework to debate when to challenge authority, balancing the individual versus the government, and the importance of bridging different points of view to overcome challenges.
So, I am thankful that this ambitious and sprawling story came along when it did. The political themes resonate more sharply now than even on first viewing. And they gave three generations of my family a common language to relate to one another in discussing the challenges of our world. Sit down and rewatch the Marvel movies like a television show in 2019. You might be surprised how they will unexpectedly crystallize the challenges that we currently face — and perhaps will always face — as human beings. There will always be bullies. People will struggle to unite in facing obstacles. And we will forever grapple with the fundamental unfairness of who wields power and what they do with it.
We can find heroes in stories even when they seem scarce in real life. It is perhaps the reason why we tell ourselves stories in the first place.