In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter Parker and his classmates compete in Academic Decathlon. I love that AcaDec is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe because I competed in it my senior year of high school. In fact, academic decathlon class was where I first heard about Marvel’s grandiose plan. One day during seventh period, a classmate of mine was talking about the Avengers movie. He said they would have to make Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor films first. And I remember thinking, “That’s too many movies. This will never work.”
Boy was I wrong. I have loved the MCU since the release of Iron Man and seen every single one. Seeing tribute videos makes me incredibly emotional.
My opinion is not unique. Walking into a comic book shop can be an off-putting experience. I walked into one this weekend. A group of teenagers was playing a tabletop game. Another group of middle-aged men sat across the room talking comics. Even for a nerdy loser like me, a comic book shop can be too dorky. On the other hand, everyone can talk about the movies.
Since the popularization of the internet, monoculture events are few and far between. Families across the nation no longer sit together to watch The Brady Bunch on Friday evenings1)Why did The Brady Bunch air on Fridays? Nowadays, a Friday time slot is where shows go to die. Did people have nothing better to do on the weekends in the 70’s than to sit around and watch TV?. Marvel movies are one of those rare remaining monoculture spectacles. The entire world goes to see the latest Marvel movie.
In the last few years, Marvel Studios has put out plenty of great films including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther. However due to the deluge of Marvel films, each one is no longer a remarkable experience. Going to the theater to watch a Marvel movie, as good as they can be, has become commonplace. And the next CGI action sequence or scene filled with witty dialogue is beginning to feel mediocre.
As you know, l’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.
And nobody criticizes mythology for its quality or prevalence in the culture. Few people are willing to criticize The Iliad‘s plot, and even fewer would say the Bible is filled with weak characters. Myths are important because they are the memetic vehicles that impart our social values to one another.
And what do Marvel’s stories teach us? The most important lesson comes from the MCU’s first major character, Tony Stark. On the surface, the heroes of myth seem like supermen with unattainable power. Tony Stark is no exception. He is rich, suave, and is able to build a super-powered suit of armor out of scraps. And that is certainly the character we see in most of the Iron Man films.
But due to the size and scope of the MCU, we get to see more of his character. The audience sees a man who is scared. After the first Avengers film, Tony becomes afraid of fighting the stronger forces out there in the universe. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, he uses that fear to build the Ultron system, but it only threatens the safety of the world and alienates Tony from the rest of his teammates.
Tony is not really afraid of some cosmic power or evil bad guy; what he is really afraid of is failing and letting those around him get hurt. Tony’s vision during Age of Ultron makes that clear. The dream version of Captain America says, “You could have saved us. Why didn’t you do more?”
That fear destroys everything around him. His relationship with Pepper Potts falls apart2)Although, Tony and Pepper have already reconciled by this point in the series.. In Civil War, he alienates his closest allies like Captain America. And in Spider-man: Homecoming, Tony is even able to (temporarily) push his protege, Peter Parker, away. All of these events happen because Tony is afraid of letting those around him down. Underneath his confident persona is an ocean of self-doubt and self-loathing as exemplified during this scene in Homecoming:
Peter Parker: I just wanted to be like you.
Tony Stark: And I wanted you to be better.
Tony clearly does not think highly of himself. The story of Tony Stark in the MCU is not about a billionaire playboy who becomes a superhero. Instead, it is about a normal man becoming crippled by fear.
Avengers: Infinity War comes out later this week. I have been waiting a decade for this film and could not be more excited for it. But deep down, we already know what is going to happen to Tony Stark. Either in this film or the next, he probably dies or retires. But before then, he pushes aside all his fears to stand up to Thanos.
Stories do not have to be new to be exciting. Star Wars is just as good on the hundredth viewing as the first. Myths only reveal truths we all already know. We just forget the message from time to time. And Infinity War‘s truth is already obvious: Bravery does not require a cape.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Why did The Brady Bunch air on Fridays? Nowadays, a Friday time slot is where shows go to die. Did people have nothing better to do on the weekends in the 70’s than to sit around and watch TV?|
|2.||↑||Although, Tony and Pepper have already reconciled by this point in the series.|