In Conversation: MCU

Jen: We’re talking about Marvel today. As somebody whose formative years as a critic was when the MCU was at its height of universal acclaim, it’s been interesting to see the trajectory. At least in my circles there are people that either love them or are tired of the samey feel, and while I understand both perspectives I’m a horrible centrist when it comes to anything like this. I just like good movies when they’re good. I was championing Infinity War as a revolutionary blockbuster back when it came out and I still kind of hold onto that sentiment, but it’s hard to deny that I feel swamped by the amount of stuff they’re looking to churn out going forward. You guys caught up on Wandavision yet?

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Henry: I was up all last night so I did catch the newest (that’s episode four as we’re writing this) about the second it dropped. Similar to you, the MCU was something that grew into what it is now as I was expanding my film viewing horizons and it’s something that initially I saw when I was too young to go by myself and my dad would take my brother and I then became a worldwide phenomena that had me going with friends or doing crazy stuff like midnight marathons and delaying the trip back home to Florence on a spur of the moment decision to stay in Rome on the way back from Warsaw so I could see Endgame a couple days early. Generally speaking, I’ve enjoyed all of the films and they’re solid popcorn entertainment but I definitely have been feeling some burnout lately and especially after Endgame felt like it wrapped it up. Of course, it was never going to end there and won’t for many years and there’s loads of other stories that have been set up but I liked the finality of some of it for the moment and the follow ups sort of irk me on principle even if they’ll probably be the standard formula that I’ll enjoy in the moment when I’m surrounded by a crowd. I think that’s a lot of my problem with Wandavision. We get two characters who seemed to have their stories wrapped up just coming back to give us some content, and it’s about the same as any Marvel, which is to say it’s flashy and entertaining but wouldn’t make any waves if it weren’t for the franchise it was a part of, and now that the audiences hyping them up and applauding the good moments and shouting at the screen are gone and my only company watching is a can of beer, it just doesn’t feel that special. Add onto that my notorious aversion to watching television and it’s not a recipe for success. Yet, it’s the first show in maybe five years that I’ve been watching on a weekly basis and in these times where I can’t go to the movies with some friends or even have them over to watch a tv show, it is nice to have something so many people are watching to give something to discuss that isn’t which of our friends have COVID or the continued struggles of unemployment and I can’t really imagine anything but Marvel having that sort of cultural heft so I’m trying to put some of my hangups aside and just have some dumb fun like I would in regular times.

Kern: I’m a fair bit older than you two, so I think I’ve had a different relationship to the MCU than you guys. When Iron Man came out, I was a few years into film school, and arguably at my most arrogant/pretentious phase, working at Blockbuster and getting into arguments with classmates about the merits of Harmony Korine and Gaspar Noe. At that point, I thought I was completely above all that Hollywood shit, but not even in a judgmental or sneering way, it just would barely hit my radar, apart from the typical “it’s this month’s bullshit popular rental.” Even saying that though, I watched a fair amount of them as they came out on DVD, but never had any particular affinity for them (also never been a comic book reader or superhero fan). It wasn’t until it became hugely popular that I really leaned into the “okay fuck this nonsense” ideology and saw it as a poison to the film industry. Hypocritically, I still went out of my way to see every one from the last few years in theaters, just because it’s The Cultural Conversation. It wasn’t until Endgame, which I was totally prepared to hate, that I somehow shifted more toward acceptance/appreciation for the MCU. I really admire their model of the individual entries from different filmmakers that form a whole. Inherently, most of them feel cut from the same bland cloth, but I think this upcoming era is the most exciting for me, because there seems to be at least a miniscule amount of experimentation coming up. It’s like okay now you’ve made the highest grossing film of all time, you’re the most popular franchise there has ever and probably will ever be…go wild. And I hope they do. Though they probably won’t and I’ll regret this unwarranted optimism and revert back to “it’s the death of film.” I’m caught up on WandaVision. Loved the concept in theory, though the first couple episodes really stretched their respective television era tropes to the point of tedium, but episode three I thought was actually strong. As a big fan of Lost, I’m all in on the cliffhanger mystery bullshit, so the weirdness perforating the premise was great. And then this episode (four) does away with that and feels to me like what I imagine Agents of Shield (never seen it) is like, or at least that crossed with any modern generic FBI procedural show. Not a fan. Have either of you had a similar fluctuation with Marvel films since it began, or have you always been on board?

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Henry: I started with Iron Man and loved it out of the gate and I still think it’s one of the best from the series. Maybe second only to Endgame. It may not seem like it now that all the other films have done the same thing but it felt fresh at the time and not just because I was a kid. It even made it on Ebert’s best of the year list and, for all the hype The Dark Knight gets, it was Iron Man that really changed the trajectory for these movies and what they were like, even from different franchises. There have been some fluctuations I suppose as some of them were just bad and there was a stretch where watching them seemed like a chore even when I did enjoy them, but it’s always been a fun chore. I guess my biggest fluctuation really came after Endgame despite it being my favorite because, unlike you, I don’t really care much about the experimentation. I have hundreds of other films to watch that can do that better. This story is done but if they want to keep it going, I’d honestly rather see another rehash of an entertaining Spider-Man story than have to try and force myself to get invested in new characters that become increasingly wackier but still tethered to mainstream sensibilities. Honestly this fourth episode of Wandavision has been my favorite so far for similar reasons. I don’t want to deal with all this cliffhanger stuff because I don’t care enough. It’s a connected universe so show me some of that. I watched Agents of Shield for a couple seasons and it was only when it connected to the movies that I ever cared because the concept wasn’t really strong enough on its own, though the Netflix shows invariably managed to be their own thing and it worked. In Wandavision, we’ve got characters from the movies and I’m watching to keep up with the cultural conversation around the movies so I say keep it as in line with them as possible with maybe a bit of special flair added. I like my tv cinematic and that seems to be how they get at it here.

Jen: I got in a little bit late, The Avengers was the first one that I saw. Which isn’t a bad introduction, really. Got caught up with the rest in time to see Guardians of the Galaxy in theaters and I’ve seen everything since Ragnarok opening weekend. I went through a “these will be the death of cinema” phase not long after Endgame, but I think I was just more upset they didn’t have the honor to go out on a high note so I’ve hesitantly withdrawn such a firm disdain. My frustration with WandaVision is they don’t commit enough to looking and feeling like sitcoms of the day. They have that big studio logo before the show even starts and it just kills any sense that what you’re watching is authentic. Not that I need a show in 2021 to look, sound and feel like I Love Lucy, but the fact that they literally couldn’t commit to the trick for a second of runtime is irritating. I hope to see more versatility in Phase Four but for each project I’m excited for there are two I wouldn’t care to skip. Let’s get into favorite entries real quick. For me there are two categories of A Good Marvel Movie: those that are actually good and those with the character/s I like the most. For me that’s Endgame and then Doctor Strange. Can’t get enough of those wild visuals and that cast. What about you guys?

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Henry: I think we’re probably all in agreement about Endgame being the best. Unlike so many, even as it retreads a few things from the franchise, it feels like something so much bigger and it could only be achieved by a franchise this popular and expansive and finally used the position the MCU is in to make something unique while also managing to add context to other films that made them better and having loads of wonderful moments for all the characters we came to love over the decade before and closing off some of their stories perfectly. I’d have to go with the classic Tony Stark as my favorite character which is good because he was in so many of them. I’m an Iron Man 2 apologist and that’s mostly based on his brand of arrogance being very appealing to me and also thinking it’s really cool to watch all the suits come together.

Kern: Yeah Endgame is my favorite for sure, mostly because I’m just shocked how it really does not feel like Infinity War Part II, which was what I anticipated. In a way, it’s kinda the reverse, where it abandons that grandiosity and takes the feel of a low-stakes heist movie for a good chunk of the runtime. Of course it eventually has to have the Big Murky Battle bullshit, and those are the only clips you get from it now, but in reality, that’s such a small part of the runtime. Taking the opposite position of Henry, I like the entries that don’t totally have that Stock Marvel Flavor, so Iron Man 3 is the other one I really enjoy, since it’s got a good bit of Shane Black in its DNA. From there, it’s mostly the goofier ones like the Guardians or AntMan movies. I’m hoping to find a few in the next phase that surprise me and do something different, though I think that latest episode of WandaVision proves that they’re not really capable of committing to a weird concept before they have to ground it back in the same bullshit. I just think it’s such a waste of a massive universe of different planets and species and abilities to have them all kinda feel like the same film/show/whatever. Any of the upcoming films look especially interesting to you guys?

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Jen: Everytime I go back to Endgame I forget how patient it is. For a three hour movie it doesn’t feel the length because it’s making brisk changes from act to act, and you can tell they’re just as dedicated to wallowing in misery in hour 1 to throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the wall in hour 3. Eternals is the easy highlight of Phase Four. Everything I’ve heard about its production and my faith in Chloe Zhao have me really pumped for something completely out of left field. As a Doctor Strange diehard, Multiverse of Madness looks to impress especially with Raimi in the director’s chair. I might be excited for Shang Chi as a Marvel martial-arts/wuxia extravaganza if there were anybody else in the director’s chair. Hope we don’t have another Mulan on our hands there. I agree the universe needs to expand not just in scale but in tone, which they’ve never really been brave enough to do.

Henry: I’m mostly excited for Black Widow. Looks like it’ll be some Marvelized spy stuff, possibly like Winter Soldier which is one of the highlights of the series. Otherwise, I’ve liked the Guardians of the Galaxy films a lot so I’m definitely looking forward to the next one and the same goes for Spider-Man, though most of what I’ve liked about the other Spider-Man movies was that they were small scale and felt like the earlier Marvel movies so I’m a bit concerned with everything I keep hearing that the third won’t be at all like that. I want to get behind The Eternals because everyone seems to think it’ll be good but the idea of having to learn the lore for a whole new team of characters isn’t appealing at all and I haven’t much liked Zhao’s non-Marvel stuff and I can’t imagine this will be more for me than the others. As much as I’m anti making this into a tv series, Falcon and the Winter Soldier sounds like the type of stuff I could get behind more than most of the upcoming slate and I keep hearing a lot of exciting stuff about Moon Knight as well since that’s shaping up to be a stacked cast and a more grounded concept.

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Kern: Yeah the Moon Knight cast is almost unbelievable. I guess we’ll just have to accept that every working actor will eventually take a role in an MCU film or show, even Ethan Hawke who I imagined would scoff at something like that. Only a matter of time before we get Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Cyclops. Nothing about Zhao’s sensibilities would make her seem a good fit for the MCU, so I’m apprehensively interested in her film. Gotta agree with Henry that the idea of being inundated with lore sounds nauseating, so that only compounds my skepticism. Raimi seems like a good fit for a weird one, so I’m hoping that’s at least interesting. There are 4 Marvel movies slated for this year, with Black Widow scheduled for 5/7, and I just don’t see any way that’s happening. I’d be surprised if Eternals comes out by the end of the year.

Jen: They won’t stop until every working actor has made it in. They’ve already made a ton of surprising and fitting choices, the casting is almost never a problem for me. Remember the rumors that Daniel Day-Lewis was gonna show up as Green Goblin? The cultural well they’ve built is already at risk of drying out from people like us who think this whole thing has mostly run its course. Breaking from the negativity/skepticism, I just wanna say that just because this franchise may be overstaying it’s welcome, the stuff we all love about it isn’t gonna get sour. I can get caught up in the brand nihilism but in reality I’m just ready to move on.

Henry: Yeah I can get fairly pessimistic about the future of it as well but honestly it’s just because it’s more of the same and that same is always enjoyable so I’m sure it’ll be fun to keep seeing them and the old stuff is still largely amusing to revisit even if a few haven’t held up so well with the hype stripped away. I would say I hope something takes it’s place but I really don’t want to see another mega franchise so if we must have one, might as well have this one and know it’ll be a decent enough time even as they force ten movies and five tv shows a year.

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In Conversation

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