It is undeniable that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is one of the most potent entities in entertainment.
Its scope and dominance are unmatched, as each Marvel superhero film eclipses countless others in terms of box office success. This kind of hegemony has not come without pushback. For instance, renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese infamously claimed that MCU productions more akin to theme park rides than cinema. Though he was met with the internet’s furious scorn, it is becoming more and more apparent that Scorsese was right.
The death of critical thinking, the oceans of thoughtless irony, and the pathological incapability for a conclusion are all thanks to the MCU burrowing its tentacles in the minds of consumers and creators alike.
To understand these immutable problems, one must understand how these films began and how the MCU’s empire was allowed to spread.
In 2008, “Iron Man” was released to critical and commercial acclaim. This was the initial spark in the grand bonfire that is the MCU. It was, at first, a breath of fresh air.
“Iron Man” came out in the era of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” movies, showing a morally questionable and edgy Batman navigating through a dark Gotham City, willing to do whatever he must for the sake of justice. This was arguably a coping mechanism for the significant American trauma that was 9/11. Batman going after criminals with vicious brutality mirrored the idea that America would be doing the same in the Middle East in the War on Terror.
It didn’t take long for the American people to grow tired of this overly severe era. In 2008, the same two choices of change were made: elect Barack Obama as president and move in a new direction for mass media.
Gone was the era of Batman brutalizing criminals for information, and welcomed was the time of charismatic, colorful heroes shooting quips at one another as they fought one-dimensional villains. This change made sense at the time.
People spent a decade taking everything overly seriously, even with things as fantastical as Batman facing off against The Joker and Two-Face. As such, “Whedon speak,” named for prominent MCU director Joss Whedon’s philosophy of witty and self-deprecating dialogue, felt like a breath of fresh air.
However, the funny thing about fresh air is that nothing is fresh forever; one must make sure that this new air has merits beyond its novelty. Though useful as counter-hegemony, this new model’s absolute media dominance has proved to be no better than that which preceded it.
It has been over 14 years since the first MCU film was released. In these 14 years, the MCU has become the most profitable multi-media franchise ever. However, this mass media superiority has successfully destroyed the brains of all unfortunate enough to buy into this grand pyramid scheme over the years.
Nothing is inherently wrong with the concept of mass media. The problem lies in media hegemony. Marvel movies and movies like them dominate the market. As a result, they limit the imaginations of consumers and creators alike.
The Marvel strategy can be summed up as creating several movies as part of a mass saga and then putting them on streaming services months or weeks after their release in theaters. The narrative structure of the MCU is such that there can never be a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
There are only a slew of soulless mass media products that all serve to set things up for more and more sequels. Artistic merit is sacrificed at the altar of profit.
The human element of these movies is also drained. Most have two-dimensional heroes making the same snarky one-liners at each other as they face off against equally two-dimensional and quippy villains. The premise of these quips lies in the post-modern critique of the overly severe 2000s era.
This practice of postmodernism can work; however, it has to have meaning. Postmodernism inherently requires that it subvert a grander monoculture, but the MCU now is the monoculture. Sincerity is now dead in the eyes of the consumer.
This makes the few parts of the MCU that have even an iota of real depth or meaning behind them heralded as masterful examinations of the human soul. For instance, the fact that people call “Wandavision” a subversive masterpiece of experimental storytelling makes me sick.
The MCU also vastly limits consumers’ imaginations to conceive things beyond the one-dimensional moral universe presented in these movies.
Almost every story centering around an anti-hero or any morally dubious protagonist is bound to be demonized by those who immerse themselves in these movies. “Taxi Driver,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” and even “Joker,” are all vilified for the crime of portraying a character going about morally dubious actions, claiming that they are glorifying those kinds of behaviors.
They are not unlike the evangelical mothers who struck “Black Sabbath,” “Harry Potter,” and “Pokemon” with the label of satanic indoctrination. This is a problem that would not exist if not for the hegemonic empire over media that the MCU has built.
Herein lies the pathological danger that the MCU represents to the future of cinema: its formula is bound to spread like a virus, carrying the same flaws over even more of what consumers see. Consequently, consumers will be unable to acknowledge the beauty of real cinema. Fulfilling narratives will be labeled as “cringe,” and sincerity is “try-hard.”
Everything from “Goodfellas” to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Pulp Fiction” would need sequels, spin-offs, and cinematic universes to capture the attention of modern consumers.
Saint Paul’s English teacher and aspiring filmmaker Joshua Pereira views the MCU’s pervasive influence as problematic: “The main issue with Marvel films is not necessarily their popularity. The problem is their excessive influence on American cinema as a whole. There are so many marvel properties that need to be serviced to the fan base that it crowds the room for unique and interesting films that don’t involve superheroes.”
These things are part of the greatest truth that has surrounded my generation’s entire life. The curse of capitalism has stolen the artful soul of cinema. All of these things happen simply because the MCU formula is the best formula for profit.
The slaughtering of art for capital’s sake can even be seen in recent news. A wholly finished, ready-to-watch movie, “Catwoman,” was about to be released on HBO Max before executives decided that they would make more money by recording “Catwoman” as a tax write-off than releasing it in the first place.
However, the most dangerous thing about these movies is the agenda of American imperialism that they indoctrinate in youths.
The MCU’s vision is one of the countless villains threatening earth, thus legitimizing the authority of superheroes to stand up against them. This narrative is almost a perfect mirror of the natural world idea of America as a global police force that must use its empire to combat what is considered “evil.”
It’s no coincidence that these movies are funded in large part by the military-industrial complex. The MCU is the opium of the masses.
The MCU is the most potent weapon in this arsenal of mass media. If we do not want to live in a world where the MCU completely dominates cinema with its formula, then the answer is as clear as day: we as consumers, creators, and people must liberate our minds from the tremendous narcotic that is the MCU.
It is time to bring an end to this Marvel Cinematic Universe.