Directed by: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Ugh, what more is there to say about these damn superhero movies? I keep deferring a long-form post to summarize the genre, but they keep churning out film after film. And I keep coming back, ready to embrace that childlike, uncritical, passive enjoyment, in deference to the pre-formed 14-year-old comic nerd brain that still exists in me, but which sits dormant until I walk past a theatre and see a poster for yet another instalment of this never-ending cash cow “expanded universe”. But holy cow—talk about diminishing returns! Not only are these movies getting stagnant, repeating the same shit, and not only are they getting worse, they’re getting more and more explicitly conservative and intellectually retrograde that I can’t even say that it was a fun time at the movies anymore. This last one was an exhausting assault on even the bare, life-sustaining, homeostasis-craving vestige of “intellect” that exists after I’ve switched my brain off for a night out at the latest superhero movie. I would never be so foolhardy to expect a “smart” mainstream superhero movie, but this level of logical absurdity…basically, as long as an action movie is at the level of watching the shiny car chase the other shiny car, or watch the good guy get into some crazy and impressive martial arts fights with the bad guys (I basically just described The Transporter, which was dumb, but fucking Shakespeare compared to this), then it kind of can’t go wrong, and I’ll kind of defend it all day long. These Marvel films are trying to have their cake and eat it too; they’re providing the best examples of lowest common denominator, bloated CGI budget, shameless cross-promotional, marketing campaign first and story second (if at all), movies as money-making tools, and corporate cinema par excellence, but they’re trying to buy legitimacy by giving the viewer some “thinky” stuff to chew on, so that the extended CGI fight scenes and stunted comic-book dialogue feel more “authentic.”
The problem is, they have to be mainstream, because that’s the name of the game. By definition, there cannot be any ideas in this “idea movie” that come remotely close to actually challenging or questioning the status quo, and if they introduce something that seems a bit edgy—the government maybe acts in a moral grey area sometimes!—rest assured, it isn’t, because as soon as that idea gains enough credence to form the basis of a multi-million dollar superhero extravaganza, it’s officially mainstream. This is why it’s so depressing and agonizing to watch this movie’s central premise unfold and stagger slowly downhill, watching Captain America and Iron Man hash the pros and cons out, like a couple of idiots who don’t know how to drive, bickering between themselves about which buttons on the car radio will put the car in gear, as the vehicle slowly putters in Neutral down towards a cliff face. Like the last Avengers movie, which was a thinly veiled assertion of the conservative viewpoint on guns (the way to beat a bad guy with a big gun is a good guy with a bigger gun), this movie is essentially an allegory for nuclear disarmament, for drone warfare, for gun control, the classic American mythos of the lone cowboy hero with his innate sense of the appropriate dispensation of violence, and the odious restraints of the community, in the form of government, of people less dynamic and less manly than the central hero (the fact that this conflict unfolds in a Captain America movie instead of in one of the other offshoots of the franchise is a dead giveaway of the direction they’re going to go with this ), telling the cowboy hero that they, with their “arguments” and their “facts”, can dare to question his innate gut sense of right and wrong. This stuff is dumb when you see it in an old Western, but at least Liberty Valance has the relative mythological purity of being made a long time ago, and of dealing with a time period and a mythology forged an even longer time ago, that you can forgive it for asserting some outdated and problematic assertions—especially when the movie itself undermines that mythology while in the process of forging it. When those same fucking tropes get re-hashed again and again in the context of the modern day, it gets pretty fucking tiring. In the 70’s, the solution to the problems of the postwar world was a middle-aged white guy with a gun, indiscriminately murdering every black, Latino, young, and/or long-haired person he found hanging around the New York subway after dark. And in 2016, the problems of the post-9/11 world can be solved by an incredibly small elite of super-powered demigods, who answer to no authority, but who give us their word that they’re unimpeachably honest, and they’re only going to pull their gun out of their holster when they really need to (or in this case, they’ll only drop a city on top of another city when they really need to). The fact that this movie invokes some realism in order to address the glaring collateral damage done in the name of their superheroics is itself a pretty admirable thing, and it’s something the comic book universe could only admit in a side-note, throwaway, self-contained story (in comic biz, they call it a one-shot), called The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe. It sounds like what it is—a bunch of victims of Marvel superhero collateral damage pool their resources and pay the Punisher to kill each and every Marvel superhero. Now, if that’s the direction Disney is headed with these movies, then that would make for a good night at the movies! But, as is, the introduction of the real life damage done in the name of reckless, needlessly violent superhero antics could only lead, as it did, to a full-hearted embrace of the superhero’s right to unrestrained violence. Unless, you know, it didn’t—unless the filmmakers would have chosen to switch things around, to show Iron Man advocating unrestrained violence and thus align the film’s moral centre, Captain America, with ideas of responsibility, of the few serving the many in the community, showing self-restraint for the good of the whole, etc. Would that really be so radical? Politically, not really. But cinematically, within the bounds of what this bloated, CGI, apocalypse-porn genre has been built around, there’s no way the film could give credence to restraint, because if they did, there’s no movie. So maybe there’s an argument that this entire genre has its roots, structurally, in a colourful and friendly form of fascism—a few exceptional individuals know what’s best for the world, and isn’t it great that they have the ability to act unilaterally, in the public’s best interests of course, and if you break a few eggs, that’s the price of making this omelette (without seriously exploring the possibility of making a different omelette, or getting out of the kitchen altogether). Ugh, but yes, the 20 minutes with Spider-Man and Ant Man were pretty fun.